During today’s State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE is expected to highlight a few areas where he believes Republicans and Democrats should work together.
As a proud Democrat and an elected official in one of the most progressive states in America, I can understand why some liberals may be wary of applauding anything this president says. There are no shortage of issues where Democrats should proudly and unequivocally stand firm against President Trump and the GOP’s agenda. But on the few areas where some common ground is possible, we have a responsibility to work together.
That’s why I believe there is at least one issue that should draw unanimous praise during tomorrow’s speech from both the left and the right sides of the aisle - the president’s commitment to criminal justice reform.
If you weren’t paying attention, or like many of us had already shut down your laptop for the holidays, you probably missed it. Just hours before the federal government entered a partial shutdown on Dec. 21, President Trump signed into law the most substantial rewrite of our federal prison and sentencing laws in decades - the First Step Act.
While it’s too early to call the First Step Act a total success, as most of the bill has not yet been implemented, there are strong early indications that the new law will dramatically improve the lives of thousands of people in prison and their family members while also beginning the long process of transforming the federal prison system. There have already been reverberating impacts on criminal justice policy-making as states like Florida, Arkansas, and others begin working on their own versions of “First Step Acts” to bring bipartisan momentum to their state capitals.
Matthew Charles was one of the first people released from prison as a result of the First Step Act’s provisions retroactively applying a 2009 law shortening sentences for crack cocaine offenses. Tonight, he will be in attendance at the State of Union address as President Trump’s special guest. Edward Douglas and Catherine Toney were also both recently released from this same provision, which shaved years off their prison sentences and returned them home to begin new lives. The efforts of hard-working federal defenders filing motions in the courts will bring new stories of second chances and better futures. As the other provisions that address prison rehabilitation and expand programming go into effect, we will see even more progress.
There is also cause for concern.
Parts of the bill have been delayed because of either the partial shutdown, the lack of a Senate-confirmed attorney general, or the absence of a permanently appointed Federal Bureau of Prisons director. One of the bill’s first deadlines has passed and a misinterpretation of the law by the BOP threatens to significantly delay another important provision.
This past weekend, family members of loved ones detained in a federal detention facility in Brooklyn heard of harrowing conditions for incarcerated men and women as a power outage resulted in freezing temperatures and inadequate access to medical treatment. Power and heat have reportedly been restored to the facility but the Bureau of Prisons has not yet adequately explained why this happened nor have they put forward a plan to prevent similar scenarios from playing out in its facilities during extreme weather events.
In light of these developments, President Trump shouldn’t just take a “victory lap” for what was accomplished last year. He should reiterate his commitment to criminal justice reform and set out what he will continue to do to make progress.
If he does that, Democrats and Republicans should applaud loudly.
There isn’t much for the average American to celebrate as they observe what’s happening in Washington, D.C. To make matters worse, the fast-approaching 2020 election cycle provides more incentive for politicians to lean into disagreements rather than collaborate. While elections may be a zero-sum game, in the handful of working days between them lawmakers in DC and around the country would best serve their constituents by working together to progress for real people rather than attack one another to score a few cheap political points.
Criminal justice reform has emerged as the one issue that continues to bring leaders in both parties together. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.
Jessica Jackson is the national director and cofounder 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 HuffmanIn their own words: Lawmakers, staffers remember Jan. 6 insurrection Overnight Energy & Environment — Manchin raises hopes on climate spending Energy & Environment — Advocates look for Plan B climate legislation MORE on the Democratic Central Committee of Marin. In November 2013, Jessica became the youngest ever elected official in Marin County, Calif. when she was elected to the Mill Valley City Council. Jessica became the Mayor of Mill Valley in November 2016 and currently serves as a member of the City Council.