EDITORIAL: We must solidify First Step, take next step
Sen. Booker’s Next Step Act continues reform progress of criminal justice
A new day was meant to dawn. But the apparent rising sun of progress and reform seems more and more to be only a mirage of a society lost in a desert without the free-flowing waters of justice. We passed the First Step Act at the end of last year, a historic criminal justice reform bill meant to unleash the tides of change that was, in light of its namesake, the first step in addressing the inequality and injustices of our nation’s criminal justice system.
But, with 2018 ending days after the bill’s passage and no funding for the reform’s programs in the 2019 budget, the bipartisan support of the bill put faith in funding allocation in federal government’s 2020 budget. But, while the law seeks $75 million a year for five years, President Donald J. Trump’s released budget priorities for 2020 explicitly list only $14 million for the act’s programs.
“It appears that the same bureaucrats that fought the First Step Act at every opportunity are trying to starve it to death through the budget process,” said Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Monday marked the beginning of the lengthy budget process with many revisions and debates to come, but Trump’s “A Budget For A Better America” indicates where the administrations' priorities and intentions lie moving forward. And moving forward, we now see that the current path is one of hollowed promises and undermined progress.
"In order for the First Step Act to live up to its promise of transforming our federal prisons and improving public safety, it must be fully funded. Right now, it is unclear to me from the president's initial budget request whether or not this includes the $75 million authorized by the First Step Act for FY 2020. I am hopeful that it does but will wait for more details to be released later this week,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the prisoner advocacy group #Cut50.
While prison reform advocates lobby and watch to see how the budget process unfolds, New Jersey Sen. and presidential hopeful Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is ready to make headway on the “Next Step.” The First Step Act was most consequential for its provisions on meaningful and reasonable sentencing reform to confront the rise of mass incarceration in recent decades. In addressing federal mandatory minimums, we addressed a catalyst for the surge of harsh sentencing that swept through the nation.
Booker’s Next Step Act will ambitiously attempt to carry the torch one step further. His proposal would eliminate the racially-driven disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. It would also unlock and open the labor market’s door for those who went through the justice system, served their time and now look to build themselves up post-conviction. By prohibiting “federal employers and contractors from asking job applicants about their criminal history until the final stages of the interview process,” the bill provides more opportunity for applicants to combat the shackling stigma around having a criminal history.
If we believe in the validity of our nation’s punishment system, we must not extend the constraints of incarceration beyond the confines of the prison. Once deprived of liberty as punishment for their crime, the formerly incarcerated would receive reinstated voting rights under Booker’s proposal. The Next Step Act would also end the federal prohibition of cannabis and provide “better training for law enforcement officers in implicit racial bias, de-escalation and use-of-force."
Many reformers and politicians have begun to take up the tools necessary to deconstruct our carceral society. Mass incarceration undermines everything we as nation desire and strive to be. The dishonoring of our democratic obligation must not continue. The progress of legislative reform cannot be hampered by the forced malnourishment of justice. We must, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” A fully-funded First Step Act must solidify our progress as we take the next step forward.
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