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Senate Passes Historic Criminal Justice Reform Legislation

The FIRST STEP Act marks progress toward reducing mass incarceration

A 2016 Brennan Center report found that nearly 40 percent of prisoners are incarcerated without a public safety benefit. That number is likely to come down as a result of the new measure.(Image: Melanie Hobson/EyeEm)

A 2016 Brennan Center report found that nearly 40 percent of prisoners are incarcerated without a public safety benefit. That number is likely to come down as a result of the new measure.(Image: Melanie Hobson/EyeEm)

The Senate approved on Tuesday the most substantial criminal justice reform legislation in a generation. The bipartisan bill, known as the FIRST STEP Act, will shorten some unnecessarily long federal prison sentences and enforce rules that will improve conditions for people currently in prison.

The 87-12 tally included substantial support from both Republicans and Democrats. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have been two of the leading advocates in Congress behind the bill. It will now go to the House where it’s expected to pass. President Donald Trump, too, has said he supports the measure.

“This is a big deal," said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center's Justice program. "Today, the Senate unequivocally spoke out against our country’s addiction to mass incarceration. By passing the FIRST STEP Act, lawmakers are backing long-overdue fixes to some of the most broken parts of our justice system that for too long have been overly-punitive and downright unfair." 

The U.S. has less than five percent of the global population but almost 25 percent of its prison population, and mass incarceration places a disproportionate burden on communities of color.

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One major accomplishment of the FIRST STEP Act is that it includes meaningful sentencing reform provisions. Addressing sentencing laws is critical to any efforts to reduce mass incarceration, one of the defining civil rights issues in the United States today. The U.S. has less than five percent of the global population but almost 25 percent of its prison population, and mass incarceration places a disproportionate burden on communities of color.

The Brennan Center has been working to reform federal sentencing law for over half a decade. A 2016 Brennan Center report found that nearly 40 percent of prisoners are incarcerated without a public safety benefit. That number is likely to come down as a result of the new measure.

The passage of the FIRST STEP Act takes place amid widespread public support for criminal justice reform across the political spectrum. In a 2017 survey, 71 percent of Americans, including a majority of Trump voters, agreed about the importance of reducing the country’s prison population. But the bill faced — and ultimately overcame — some serious political hurdles. The success of the First Step Act should push reform-minded lawmakers and candidates to champion bolder proposals in the lead-up to the 2020 campaign.

Tim Lau

Tim Lau joined the Brennan Center’s Communications and Strategy Team in October 2018. As a staff writer, he produces daily content on relevant news developments connected to Brennan Center’s core issues. He also provides editorial support on social media and publications projects. Previously, Tim worked on the editorial teams at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Asia Society. He received his B.A. in International Relations and English Literature from Wheaton College.

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