TEXAS VIEW: New criminal justice bill is only the First Step, but deserves support

By Houston Chronicle

President Donald Trump recently hosted a White House event that, in an earlier era, would have been remarkable.

Surrounded by cabinet members, Trump stridently spoke out about serious problems in the criminal justice system. But instead of just spewing law and order bromides about getting tough on crime, this Republican president talked about the “tremendous struggle” faced by former inmates freed from prison after serving their sentences, about their problems finding “a steady job where they can pay taxes, contribute to their country, gain dignity and pride that comes with a career.” And he pressed Congress to send him legislation crafted to help criminals who’ve served their time to adjust to life in the free world.

At a time when politicians in both major parties seem to disagree on everything just for spite, there’s now bipartisan agreement on the necessity of prison reform. But a surprising number of reformers are opposing legislation winding its way around Capitol Hill because they believe it doesn’t go far enough. They’re right to press for a bolder bill, but they’re wrong to fight against sensible legislation both sides can agree upon.

At issue is a bill called the First Step Act of 2018. Among its many initiatives, the legislation would encourage federal inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitation programs, which would receive an additional $50 million during the next five years. It would also institute some very specific changes advocated by reformers, like decreeing the federal prison system incarcerate inmates no more than 500 miles from their families.

But a good many prominent prison reform advocates are lobbying to kill the First Step Act, arguing that it doesn’t address the problem on the front end. Sentencing reform, they argue, must be a part of this plan. The opposition comes mostly from Democrats and civil rights groups. But even a number of prominent Republicans — like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — argue that changing draconian sentencing rules for comparatively minor offenses is essential for a federal incarceration system that’s costing taxpayers more than $7 billion a year.

Longtime prison reform advocates can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. They should keep advocating for sentencing reform legislation, but also must support what are admittedly half-measures agreed upon by all sides on Capitol Hill.

Congress needs to pass the First Step Act of 2018. After all, this is only the first step.