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Senate makes moves for criminal justice reform with the First Step Act

The Senate passed a criminal justice reform bill on Tuesday.

Passing 87-12, the new legislation marks the biggest bipartisan effort under Trump’s presidency, showing members of the Senate to be overwhelmingly in support of instilling changes to the federal criminal justice system.

The bill, known as the First Step Act, will allow thousands of people to gain early release from prison as well as potentially cut more prison sentences in the future.

It is estimated that the bill will affect about 181,000 people currently serving time — a somewhat modest figure given the fact that the prison population in the U.S. currently sits at 2.1 million people.

Indeed, while only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, the country is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

With this new bill, many could be granted an earlier release through a credit system that awards good behavior or alternatively through participation in rehabilitation programs in prison.

The bill also lessens some mandatory minimum sentences and provides judges with more leeway in refraining from certain sentencing guidelines.

Supporters of the bill expressed how the new legislation is an initial step in amending the failed “war on drugs” that attempted to deter illegal drug use via introducing the infamous “three-strike law” and establishing long-term prison sentences for drug convictions.

How criminal justice reform came to be a bipartisan issue

With the incarceration system overwhelmingly overpopulated, the system has become an excessive financial burden and an acute misuse of taxpayer money since the public widely favors criminal justice reform.

The bill has been in the works over the course of the year. An early iteration of the bill was passed in the House in May but focused on ‘back end’ reforms orientated around improving prison conditions and easing inmates’ re-entry into society.

Surprisingly, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been at the vanguard of the initiative for criminal justice reform. Kushner reached out to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, (who represents New York’s 8th congressional district in Brooklyn and Queens) in an effort to gain support from Democrats.

Though initially resistant, Jeffries became the major Democratic proponent of the First Step Act but drew criticism from rebuke from some of the most prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and other progressive groups opposed the bill.

Kushner also linked up with political commentator Van Jones and celebrity, Kim Kardashian West for the campaign.

But there have been other celebrities who have been vocal advocates for reform. Jay-Z’s annual Tidal X benefit concert this year brought together activists and major stars (Ms. Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, Nick Jonas, Lil Kim, Meek Mill, Anderson.Paak and more), in an effort to advocate for criminal justice and prison reform.

Rapper Meek Mill has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform after being sentenced to 2-4 years in state prison for parole violations. A judge had sentenced Meek for violations stemming from a gun and drug case from 2008.

The Philly native publically emphasized the need to bring forth systemic change in an op-ed published in The New York Times. Meek Mill’s nearly decade-old case from when he was 18 is all too case is representative of the failures of the justice system, especially for young Black Americans.

Trump and his skeptics

Despite President Trump running a “tough on crime” stance during his Presidential campaign, even proposing to bring back the stop and frisk policy, the President is in support of the new legislation and is expected to sign the bill this week.

Yet, in light of Michael Cohen’s sentencing, Flynn’s sentencing postponed, the passing of the bill is timely given that President Trump’s political and business activities are under severe investigation.

Given that throughout his speeches Trump having repeatedly delivered racist and anti-immigration fervor, his supposed “changing of heart” has been met with staunch skepticism from some Democrats as well as opposition within his own party.

On the Republican side, opposition came from former Secretary Jeff Sessions and Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

Additionally, Donald Trump stood by his decades-old claim that the group of five men (who became known as the Central Park Five), wrongfully imprisoned for the 1989 rape and beating in Central Park, despite DNA evidence proving otherwise and a convicted serial rapist coming forward and admitting to committing the crime.

There is no doubt that this bill is going to positively impact the lives of thousands of people and give justice to those have been harshly punished.

But while many will be quick to laud this new bill as a huge success and herald Trump’s ability to work with Democrats, we must not forget his hateful and bigoted rhetoric that may see a shutdown of Congress or a border wall come into fruition.