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Four years ago this week, just before Christmas, both parties came together for a holiday miracle: passing the First Step Act, the most significant change to our justice system in decades. It was a win for Republicans and Democrats in Congress; a win for then-President Donald Trump; and, more importantly, a win for thousands of American families whose lives were changed for the better through a series of prison and sentencing reforms that were fair, safe, and spoke to American values.
To date, over 7,500 folks have been able to regain their lives after the passage of the First Step Act. These are Americans who made mistakes years ago, received unduly harsh penalties that sent them to prison for decades, and have now regained their freedom. This year, they get to spend Christmas at home with their families thanks to this legislation.
It goes to show that when it comes to criminal justice reform, major progress is more than possible; I’ve witnessed it firsthand. One of my proudest moments in Congress was seeing that bipartisan bill, which I worked across the aisle to put together with now-Minority Leader-elect Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, get signed into law at Trump’s desk. It was a reminder of how much we can get done, regardless of party, on the biggest issues of the day.
In these incredibly polarized times, there is not a lot that both parties can agree on — but one bright spot is the clear consensus that the War on Drugs, and the policies that came out of it, have not worked. We can’t incarcerate our way out of a substance abuse crisis, and the sentencing disparity has led to thousands of Americans behind bars for unjustly long sentences incommensurate with the crime.
As a Christian, I firmly believe that we must support redemption for those who have atoned. The incredible, redemptive effect that passing bills like the First Step Act have across our country cannot be ignored. And as a conservative, I believe in cutting unnecessary government waste and trimming out-of-control spending, including within our justice system. It all comes down to what I call “M&M” — money and morals — and smart criminal justice legislation speaks to both.
As its name suggested, the First Step Act was just the first step, and there are many more steps that be taken to make our federal justice system fairer and more effective. Even while there is so much we are divided on as a country, when it comes to reforming our broken criminal justice system, there are plenty of promising paths forward.
One of those next steps is ending one of the most unjust laws we have on the books: the cocaine and crack sentencing disparity. Currently, the sentencing disparity is 18:1 (down from the original framework, which set it at 100:1), after President Trump signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2018.
Even though the two drugs, crack and powder cocaine, are almost the same chemically, around 90% of those serving time for crack-related offenses at the federal level are Black and are serving far longer sentences than those serving for cocaine-related sentences.
Unfortunately, Congress missed its chance to build on the First Step Act. This week, the EQUAL Act — the bipartisan bill to eliminate the sentencing disparity — was left out of end-of-year Senate negotiations. And while the Department of Justice did recently issue sentencing guidance to fix the disparity for future cases, it is still not a permanent solution and will not retroactively help the thousands of folks still in prison serving long sentences that don’t fit the crime.
Yet despite not making it over the finish line this year, I am extremely hopeful for the future: both for this legislation, and for more paradigm-shifting criminal justice reform. Before its untimely demise in the Senate, the EQUAL Act was approved with massive support from both the most conservative and liberal wings of the House, proving that bipartisan agreement on effective criminal justice policy is ripe for consideration in the coming Congress. In addition to rectifying this disparity, the new Congress will have opportunities to improve workforce development opportunities for those returning home, and reduce recidivism with evidence-based programming, and more.
Let’s hope and pray that this time next year, our country will have taken the next step forward on criminal justice reform, and continue the great work we started with the First Step Act. Doing so would not only be another victory for the country, but also a boost to families, a major step forward in making our criminal justice system more effective and our communities safer, and the best way to reflect the compassion and joy of the holiday season.