The First Step Act, which passed the House of Representatives Tuesday, has been a hot-button topic for Congress. It addresses the dire need for rehabilitative services in the federal prison system, proves there is strong bipartisan support for at least modest criminal justice reform and underscores a strategic debate that has split the Democratic Party.
What is the First Step Act? The bill, sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, and Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, seeks to add educational and vocational training and mental health treatment in federal prison. It earmarks $50 million a year over five years to expand these in-prison opportunities. It also expands the number of days in a halfway house or home confinement that inmates can earn for good behavior and self-improvement. It would expand the use of risk assessment tools—algorithms that try to predict future behavior. It bans the shackling of pregnant women; calls for placing prisoners in facilities that are within 500 driving miles of their families; and helps them get identification cards upon release.
Why is there a debate? Opponents, mostly on the left, say any criminal justice reform bill should also reduce mandatory minimum sentences or give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. A bipartisan Senate bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, is also making its way through Congress. It includes “back end” reform—services for prisoners—and “front end” reform—reducing sentence time. Its supporters believe that the House bill is stealing support and momentum from the more comprehensive bill.