I believe that this bill will be far more beneficial than it will be harmful. I think that the First Step Act is a piece of legislation that libertarians can support. I know most of us do not like the idea of supporting legislation at all, but let’s look at some of the elements of the bill.
First of all, let’s talk about the population that this bill would affect. The bill is federal law and would, therefore, affect only federal inmates. This is a population of 183,000 of the 1.5 million people currently incarcerated. However, this bill mainly focused on drug crimes, which means the number is now down to 82,000. That is less than 5.5% of the prison population. So while this only affects a small number of inmates, there are laws that I think will begin to be implemented by states if it is passed federally.
First of all mandatory minimums will be done away with. What this means is that a judge has far more discretion in the sentencing process. This could be a positive or negative. I would believe this to be more of a positive as most judges are interested in the rehabilitation process rather than mass incarceration. This is evident in the number of people that are sent to alternative sentencing programs via the judge’s decision.
This bill would also do away with the gun enhancement that prosecutors like to tack on. This is an enhancement for just simply having a gun. Even if the gun wasn’t used, the prosecutor would press for an enhancement allowing for lengthier sentencing.
Another great aspect is the abolishing of the three strike rule for drug traffickers. This is an area they will take a while to chip away at. As we push toward legalization, we will see less of a market for drug traffickers, effectively killing the market for them.
Some of the milder policies here are the programs. While there are a number of programs that I think will be beneficial like the mentoring and volunteer programs that are described as successfully rehabilitated offenders working with those in transition, there are other elements that I am not a fan of. Programs will be approved which means that government will take more funding to pay for them. Then, of course, there is the training and continuing education for counselors and state employees, not to mention the level of bureaucracy. The estimated cost is 250 million, which if I know government means 750 million.
Also, I have seen that they have done away with retroactively applying some of the changes in sentencing for crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected poor, and in most cases black inner city communities. This I was very displeased to find out about. However, this is not a deal breaker for me.
There are some downsides as well. While the mandatory minimums will be done away with for nonviolent drug offenders, there will be some violent offenders that receive these benefits as well. Offenders will quite possibly be creating products that are currently being made overseas. Not clear if this will be forced via the program or if it will be voluntary. Either way the program I believe is voluntary, but I still think that the idea of cheap prison labor sounds nasty.
Most of the changes come at the tail end. There are some credits that inmates can qualify for in order to be released earlier. There is a long list of crimes that do not qualify for the early release credits; mainly violent crimes. Nevertheless, this bill focuses on the back end and doesn’t do anything to address the police state. Finally, I was not impressed to learn that the Attorney General will be the one in charge of conducting the quality assurance inspections for the prison, which seems very peculiar. Once again, we have government saying “trust me we can regulate ourselves.” This is in spite of the fact that they don’t believe that we can regulate ourselves.
Still, the First Step Act calls for greater use of halfway houses and home confinement, which is the lowest form of supervision. The federal prison system has been attempting to tear down reentry programs. The First Step Act would also expand eligibility for the release of elderly and terminally ill inmates. This could save the government housing and medical costs, but those costs would inevitably be offset by the aforementioned costs of the program. So, in reality, it just may lighten the burden.
This policy supports a number of great reforms for nonviolent offenders. Unfortunately, it does for minimum security, low-risk property violators as well. The bill does push for a number of alternative sentencing avenues. However, this policy also grows the prison complex by incorporating more prison programs.
Overall I think that the policy is a step in the right direction. If we sit and wait for the perfect bill that will abolish everything then we are going to see the government continue to grow and the state to take more and more of our freedoms. This bill isn’t perfect and has a number of issues, but in the long run, this is the type of legislation that we as liberty minded people should be pushing for so that in the long run we can get even better bills aimed at increasing our freedom.
The First Step Act has my support, and I hope it has yours too.
Featured image: www.firststepact.org