House Advances Controversial Bill to Reform Federal Prison System

By Alfonso Serrano May 11, 2018

The House Judiciary Committee this week approved legislation aimed at improving the prison system via changes to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and its rehabilitation programs, a move that critics say does not do enough to advance reform and does nothing to address federal sentencing laws.

In a 25-5 vote on Wednesday (May 9), the committee voted in favor of the FIRST STEP Act, sponsored by Representative Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). The measure seeks to reform federal corrections spending and provide incarcerated people with education and vocational training to more effectively reenter society and reduce recidivism.

"If we can get a meaningful bill that will dramatically improve the lives of currently incarcerated individuals over to the Senate, it would seem to me that they’d be hard pressed not to move it forward," Jeffries told Roll Call.

But civil rights and prison reform advocates say the measure does not go far enough. More than 70 groups—including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Immigration Law Center—issued a joint statement, saying that the legislation will not result in lasting reform to a prison system in dire need of substantive repair.

"It is concerning that the criteria for criminal justice reform seems to no longer be that it addresses the very real problems in the federal system, but rather more about appearing as if something is being accomplished," Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the Washington Legislative Office at the ACLU, said in a statement. "The true cost of this country’s addiction to incarceration is measured in human lives—specifically the generations of young Black and Latino men who serve long prison sentences, and are lost to their families and communities for decades."

The FIRST STEP Act, critics say, would limit swaths of people in federal prisons, including people with immigration and drug offenses, from receiving time credits for participating in rehabilitative programs. Since a majority of people held for immigration and drug offenses are people of color, the measure would disproportionately exclude Blacks and Latinxs. They add that the measure does nothing to address sentencing reform for people entering the system or those who are already serving sentences that are disproportionate to their offenses.

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary also rejects the approach approved by its House counterpart. A Senate measure currently under consideration proposes a broader criminal justice overhaul bill that includes reform to federal sentencing laws, despite opposition from some Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump.

This week, Senate Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) applauded their House colleagues’ consideration of criminal justice reform measures. But they warned that Senate approval of any bill hinges on the inclusion of sentencing reform.

"We are encouraged to see our House colleagues continue a serious discussion about necessary reforms to our nation’s criminal justice system," Grassley and Durbin said in a statement. "However, as we move forward, reforms to federal sentencing laws must be a central part of this discussion. Such reforms, in combination with prison reform, will not only improve fairness in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent offenders, but also help law enforcement and the American taxpayer."