3 more steps to make 'First Step Act' work
© iStock

I stood in awe as a roomful of Trump supporters and the president himself began cheering Katherine Toney’s name. She approached the microphone at a White House reception and began to speak. After spending 16 years in federal prison, Katherine Toney was one of the first women released following the passage of the First Step Act last year.

I never thought I would ever be in a room full of #MAGA supporters, who were all cheering for the cause of criminal justice reform. But I was there. All of us have witnessed real progress on this issue in the past year. Now, much much more is needed.

ADVERTISEMENT

The First Step Act aims to transform the federal prison system, prioritize rehabilitation over punishment, and reform some of our nation’s harshest prison sentences -- remnants of the outdated War on Drugs. While getting any meaningful legislation signed into law is worthy of celebration, in most cases it is just the beginning of a much longer battle. The hard work - the part that goes mostly unnoticed - is turning intentions into actual programs, procedures and outcomes for real people.

To meet those goals, the Trump administration and Congress must follow through and implement the law quickly, fully and fairly.

Some of the most important provisions have taken effect immediately. The provision that freed Toney will benefit thousands of people currently incarcerated for outdated and unfair drug charges. A total of four sentencing reforms began to take effect in courtrooms across the country the day after the bill was signed. In total, they will impact 25,000 defendants every year.

But challenges to fully implementing other provisions have been significant.

Just hours after President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE signed the First Step Act into law, the federal government entered what would become the longest partial shutdown in history. Key employees at the Department of Justice and White House were furloughed. To add to the chaos, the Senate had not yet confirmed an attorney general. The Bureau of Prisons has not had a permanent director since May 2018, when Mark Inch resigned.

ADVERTISEMENT

Because of the lack of permanent leadership and the heated battle over border security funding, the first deadline laid out in the First Step Act came and went without effective action.  By Jan. 21, the Department of Justice was supposed to form an Independent Review Committee, which would be responsible for working with the Bureau of Prisons to create a new Risk and Needs Assessment across the federal prison system. One of the most critical components of the new law, the Risk and Needs Assessment System is relied upon by other key provisions. The Review Committee has not yet been formed and further delays could significantly derail implementation efforts.

Other elements have stalled because no overarching guidance was issued from the attorney general to the BOP, leaving the legislation open to misinterpretation. For example, despite the intent of the bill’s authors and the committee record, BOP has yet to recalculate sentences to account for the retroactive increase in Good Time Credit, which should give upwards of 4,000 people an opportunity to come home sooner. This needs to be done immediately. Now that leaders in Congress have reached a budget deal to fund the government through September and Attorney General William Barr has taken his oath of office, implementation of the First Step Act must pick up the pace and make up for lost time.

First, Attorney General Barr should nominate a permanent Director of the Bureau of Prisons and establish a credible and committed leader to steer the Bureau into a better future. There is a lot of room for improvement. The situation at MDC Brooklyn highlighted the BOP’s susceptibility to extreme weather events, an issue that has long concerned advocates like myself.  With a new leader at the helm, the BOP must be transparent and accountable to Congress. The department will need to work closely with the Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office to implement and report on the multitude of provisions laid out in the First Step Act. They must also work together and address other long-standing concerns about operations.

Second, Congressional Appropriations committee members must continue the bipartisan spirit that carried the First Step Act onto President Trump’s desk. They can do so by fully funding the bill in Fiscal Year 2020. This funding will allow for the valuable programming that will help people change their lives and earn time off the amount of time they have to serve behind the prison bars.

In fact, appropriators gave BOP $200 million more than the president’s budget requested, leaving ample flexibility to begin to implement the bill’s provisions. As passed, First Step will require $75 million a year for five years to fund the expansion of prison programming and reentry preparedness. This funding will become necessary after the Risk Assessment system is completed. It will also allow people inside the prisons to take valuable, life-changing classes to prepare them to come home job-ready.

Finally, Congress must wield its oversight powers to ensure that implementation moves forward effectively and efficiently. It is important to note that I am not calling for partisan hearings where House Democrats can score political points beating up on the administration’s failings. Nor am I calling for opportunities for hard-line Senate Republicans to continue to trumpet the alleged dangers of being “soft on crime.”

Now that the First Step Act is the law of the land, both parties have good reason to keep a close watch. President Trump championed this bill as a rare bipartisan win for his administration. Democrats vying for their party’s nomination have campaigned on the impact the bill will have on our justice system. Nobody wins and everybody loses (most of all people in prison and their loved ones) if the First Step does not live up to its promise.

This week, as part of #cut50's national Day of Empathy, Veda Ajamu traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with offices and share her brother Robert Shipp's story. Robert has been incarcerated for more than 25 years but would be immediately eligible to come home if the provision retroactively applying Good Time Credits were to go into effect. Veda shared how days after the First Step Act passed, Robert began to pack up his belongings and even gave some of his prized possessions away as he prepared for his imminent release from prison and reuniting with his family. However, as implementation has stalled Robert, Veda and their family have been left needlessly waiting. Veda came to D.C. looking for answers and to ensure that offices understood the pain that family members experience when their loved ones are incarcerated.

The First Step Act was a rare bipartisan success in Washington, D.C and a much-needed victory for people in our federal prisons. The story of how advocates fought against long odds to pass the landmark legislation was as captivating as any political thriller. But the title, “First Step Act,” was chosen to signal that the passage and implementation of this landmark bill would represent just one moment in a long process of transforming the justice system.

Katherine, Veda, and Robert's stories all give me and so many others more than enough fuel to keep moving to the next steps.

Jessica Jackson is the national director and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan effort to reduce crime and incarceration in all 50 states. Jessica sits on The Committee for a Fair Judiciary, serves as an Advisory Board member of the American Constitution Society Bay Area Chapter, and represents Congressman Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDemocrat argues GOP had 'no deep love or loyalty' to Trump Democrats take Trump impeachment case to voters Overnight Energy: Lawmakers show irritation over withheld Interior documents | Republican offers bipartisan carbon tax bill | Scientists booted from EPA panel form new group MORE on the Democratic Central Committee of Marin.