On May 17, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), released a letter to colleagues against The First STEP Act, a bipartisan prison reform bill set to be considered by the U.S. House next week.
The bill (H.R. 5632) is authored by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on May 9 by a vote of 25-5. JeffriesReponse
Sen. Booker, along with Harris, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are against The First STEP Act because they say they want to move a sentencing reform bill, namely Grassley’s “sentencing reform” bill. The Booker letter against the bill also cited what they defined as too much control given to Attorney General Sessions in The First STEP Act as well as civil rights groups who are against the bill. If Sessions’ involvement is an issue one would have to assume that everyone on the left would take no action until 2020.
Regarding the civil rights groups against The First STEP Act, let’s be real: If President Obama was President, the civil rights groups would be supporting The First Step Act — or any other bill Obama supported. When was the last time any of the civil rights groups opposed a President who was a Democrat on justice reform? They supported the dubious Grassley bill (S. 2123) because the Obama Administration wanted it. And what do we find in that legislation? New criminal penalties, a multitude of ways to exclude people from safety valve provisions, a new sentencing “enhancement” for fentanyl and a litany of exclusions from retroactive relief.
Is that justice reform? Shouldn’t the primary goal of justice reform bill be to reduce the number of people in the system? Much of what we see on justice reform is driven by politics rather than by what is actually in the legislation and its impacts.
There are four questions that are important to ask when evaluating justice reform bills:
- Does the bill reduce crime and save money?
- Does it advance the war on drugs with mandatory minimums?
- Does the bill have a disparate racial impact?
- Does the bill contain evidence based policy that has already proven itself?
If it’s sentencing legislation, we should be asking: 1/ How many people will benefit under this bill (try getting an answer from Team Grassley on that one…), 2/ What is the reduction in mass incarceration if the bill becomes law? and 3. How many people are excluded from the bill’s relief?
That’s it. Just keep asking those questions over and over. Many times “disparate racial impact” is tricky to uncover — and other times it’s right there in bold letters. When the Clinton Crime Bill passed in the 1990s many lawmakers missed that — though others, namely Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Maxine Waters and former members CBC members Cleo Fields (D-LA) and Mel Watt (D-NC) predicted exactly what happened over the next 25 years. The authors of the Clinton Crime bill (Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer…) were not mindful of disparate racial impact, to put it mildly. But the authors of the Clinton bill and the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity knew what they were doing.
Remember that the much talked about Grassley’s bill, which many CBC members supported in 2015, along with several civil rights groups, included new sentencing penalties and not a lot of evidence, if any, that it reduced crime or saved money. Typical of many bills authored by Senate Republicans, it’s frequently hard to find a lack of racial impact. But Congress has become a place where good policy goes to die and bad policy lives on, which is why several states (Texas, Georgia…) have stopped waiting for the feds and moved forward with justice reform on their own.
Though The First STEP Act is narrowly focused only on prison reform, no one I’ve asked who is focused on the legislation can verify through expertise, data or research that the bill is a step backward. If you think you can please e-mail me at (LBurke007@gmail.com). How big of a step forward varies regarding who you ask. There were no hearings on The First Step Act (blame Goodlatte) and a briefing with justice reform experts hosted by Rep. Scott was met with criticism. By the way, that’s a red flag: When people get nervous that a bill is being analyzed by experts.
Remember there was a year of analysis and expert testimony before The Safe Justice Act (H.R. 4261) was first introduced in 2015 — yet the civil rights folks supported Grassley’s bill. Today at the White House, a criminal justice reform summit was held. Meek Mill was set to attend but Jay-Z talked him out of it. Maybe Rep. Jeffries can brief Meek in Brooklyn or something, but anyway…
Below is the Booker Dear ColleagueBooker