First Step Act: Prison Reform Bill Not Perfect, But Step Toward Right Direction

The cover of Michelle Alexander’s ground-breaking book.
Honorable Chuck Grassley 

Honorable Tim Scott

Honorable Dick Durbin 

Honorable Patrick Leahy 

Honorable Mike Lee 

Honorable Joni Ernst 

Honorable Cory Booker 

Honorable Amy Klobuchar 

Honorable Lindsey Graham 

Honorable Jerry Moran 

Honorable Sheldon Whitehouse 

Honorable Christopher Coons
Dear Senators:
As President and CEO of the National Urban League, and on behalf of its 90 affiliates representing 300 communities in 36 states and the District of Columbia, we are encouraged the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on criminal justice reform by introducing the First Step Act (S. 3649). 
We applaud the leadership and persistence of Senators Booker, Grassley and Durbin in keeping criminal justice reform on the national agenda. The National Urban League supports this legislation as an important first step in moving forward on the critical need to end the unsustainable and tragic growth in our nation’s federal prison population that is disproportionately impacting African American and Hispanic families and communities. We believe this bill provides an initial framework to build on to further reform of our criminal justice system which is both a moral and economic imperative.
Reforming our criminal justice system is critical to families and communities of color. According to a recent brief by the Vera Institute of Justice, Black men comprise about 13 percent of the male population, but about 35 percent of those incarcerated. One in three Black men born today can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime, compared to one in six Latino men and one in 17 White men. 
Black women are similarly impacted: one in 18 Black women born in 2001 is likely to be incarcerated sometime in her life, compared to one in 111 white women. The brief outlines the systemic challenges faced by African Americans where “bias by decision makers at all stages of the justice process disadvantages black people. Studies have found that they are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people.”
While not perfect, the bill takes aim at moving the process forward on reducing the harsh application of mandatory minimum sentences. The enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons are reduced where the three-strike mandatory penalty is reduced from life imprisonment to 25 years, and the 20-year mandatory minimum is reduced to 15 years. However, we are deeply disappointed these provisions are not retroactive. We are encouraged by the bill’s broadening of the existing safety valve, though again disappointed it is not applied retroactively. We are especially supportive of the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.
On the reentry side, the bill provides pathways for qualifying inmates to reduce their sentences and prepare for reentry into their communities. We seek assurances that implementation of the risk assessment instruments will not have racially disparate impacts. The bill includes other key positive changes, including the elimination of a cruel prison policy towards women by prohibiting the use of restraints on prisoners during the period of pregnancy and postpartum recovery. It brings prisoners closer to their families by placing them not more than 500 driving miles from the prisoner’s primary residence. We applaud the restriction on the use of juvenile solitary confinement for any reason other than as a temporary response to a juvenile’s behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm. However, much more must be done to reform our juvenile justice system, particularly as it impacts youth of color.
While this bill represents an important first step towards reform given the extreme racial disparities that occur in our nation’s criminal justice system, we will need to closely monitor to what extent racial minorities will truly have access to the improvements made in this bill. Determining the racial impact (positive and negative) must be a priority as we move forward. Additionally, these much-needed reforms must receive assurance of the necessary funding from Congress to make them effective.
For its part, the National Urban League has been serving the formerly incarcerated for more than fifty years. Through our signature Adult Re-entry Program, the National Urban League affords enrolled participants the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials, learn employment-focused skills, and form positive relationships with their communities. We offer workforce development, targeted training, mentoring, and support services through the help of our Urban League Affiliates.
We look forward to the enactment of the First Step Act in order to proceed with the ongoing work of comprehensive criminal justice reform.
Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
Cc: Representative Hakeem Jeffries 
Representative Doug Collins 
CBC Chair Cedric Richmond 
CBC Chair-Elect Karen Bass

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