Brief #73—Civil Rights

Policy Summary: On May 7, 2018, Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) introduced the FIRST STEP Act bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The FIRST STEP Act is a bill that contains numerous reforms to help improve the criminal justice system in the United States. Less than a month later, on May 22, 2018, the House approved the bill by a 360 – 59 vote. The bill was sent to the U.S. Senate for a vote but the bill had stalled through most of 2018. In November 2018, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced a Senate version of the bill, which rapidly picked up support from both sides of the aisle. On December 11, 2018, due to the widespread support from Senators from both parties, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he would schedule a vote on the FIRST STEP Act in the very near future. LEARN MORE

Analysis: The FIRST STEP Act is a unique congressional bill in that it has widespread support from members of both political parties and seems very likely to be passed and signed by the President, which he has indicated he will do. The bill not only has the President’s support but is also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as a number of legal, non – profit, medical and faith based groups.

The bill has gained support because of three main changes it proposes to make. The bill seeks to allow judges discretion in sentencing persons instead of having to impose mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, allows inmates to receive extra credits for good behavior behind bars that can be used for early release petitions and it excludes many of the most violent offenders from benefitting from these new criminal reforms. In allowing judges more discretion to sentence a person, the bill seeks to give judges more of an opportunity to examine each conviction on a case – by – case basis. The harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws were seen as too onerous and simply gave every person convicted of certain crimes 25 or 30 years without a chance to examine mitigating circumstances. Not every crime is the same yet people were being sentenced to long terms in an inhumane and almost robotic manner. This bill seeks to give judges more power to impose more appropriate sentences based on the circumstances of each case.

The extra credits that could be applied by inmates in petitioning for early release and in excluding the most violent criminal offenders were two of the most controversial provisions until additional amendments to the bill helped to allay concerns that some had most of whom were Republicans opposed to the bill at first. The Republican opposition to the bill was because they did not want violent criminals to benefit from the bill and use the bill to secure an early release for themselves. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) then stepped in and offered an amendment to the bill that would exclude violent offenders and keep the bill focused on helping non – violent drug offenders, which helped bring more Republicans on board. Senator Mike Lee of Utah even wrote an article pointing out that the bill contains specific categories of violent crimes that would make an inmate ineligible for early time credits and early release. Once Senator Cruz’s amendment and Senator Lee’s point – by – point rebuttal of concerns and defense of the bill were examined and debated, most Republicans came on board and the bill became more likely to pass. (At last count, the bill has the support of nearly 80 senators).

The FIRST STEP Act does not solve all of the problems in the American criminal justice system but this bill does take some meaningful steps. It gives judges more control over sentencing and does give prisoners (but not those convicted of serious violent crimes) a second chance if they decide while incarcerated to turn their lives around. With its wide bipartisan support, the bill is expected to pass quickly and be signed by President Trump soon thereafter. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources:

  • Sentencing Project – non – profit group working for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system.
  • Marshall Project – non – profit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
  • Vera Institute of Justice – non – profit group looking to urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

Photo by Louis Velazquez

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