Lawmakers advanced a prison reform bill in the House on Wednesday, May 9, according to published reports — a rare glimpse of bipartisanship in an incredibly chaotic time for Washington. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner reportedly backed the bill, whose future in the Senate remains uncertain as some critics reportedly think it does not go far enough. So, what is the First Step Act? The Kushner-backed bill aims to improve conditions for some federal prisoners.
The bill seeks to offer more funding for expanding prison programs, with an eye toward reducing the recidivism rate, or the rate at which convicted criminals return to similar crimes after being released from prison. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), an independent agency within the judicial branch which studies federal crime and sentencing policies, found that almost half of inmates released from federal prison in 2005 were arrested again within eight years. Almost one-third of the offenders were also re-convicted, and one-quarter of the offenders were re-incarcerated over the same study period.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, CNN reported. Though the bill advanced Wednesday, May 9, there has been some dispute over whether the bill goes far enough. Reform advocates say that any attempt to reform America's prisons should include sentencing reforms too, according to CNN, to help break the cycle so many newly-released inmates get caught up in.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York and a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed his concern that the bill was lacking on Wednesday, according to The Hill.
“When this committee began the effort to examine the problem of over-criminalization and mass incarceration six years ago, members on both sides of the aisle quickly realized the root of the problem was excessive sentencing in general and mandatory minimums in particular,” Nadler said.
To make this point clearer, activist DeRay Mckesson, in a recent video piece for GQ.com, broke down the prison-industrial complex using the story of rapper Meek Mill's decade-long brush with state prison. In it, he describes how simple procedural offenses and sentencing laws can make former inmates extremely susceptible to future incarceration. The idea of sentencing reform, which Democrats largely support, would help create a pipeline for inmates to re-enter society, instead of jail.
But Collins, who co-sponsored the bill, insisted that those reforms could come later. (A previous version of the bill, known as the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, stalled in April, per CNN.)
"This is our time to move," Collins replied at Wednesday's meeting, adding "I would like to see sentencing reform moved, but I'm also looking at this from a practical purpose of looking at families right now and saying let's help them now."
Although the bill fell short of some Democrats' wishes, there were elements of compromise. The bill excluded previous language that would have allowed certain law enforcement officials to carry concealed firearms in all 50 states, per The Hill, and explicitly creates more programs for prisoners to earn reduced sentences.
Kushner's reported support for the bill, and by proxy, the White House's support for the bill, could be a driving force in future negotiations, according to The Huffington Post.
Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director and co-founder of #Cut50, a criminal justice reform organization, told The Huffington Post that Kushner has been a driving force behind the scenes, something she linked to the fact that Kushner's father has spent time in federal prison. Charles Kushner, Jared's father, completed a two-year federal prison sentence in 2006 for making illegal campaign contributions and hiring a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law, according to Bloomberg. He pleaded guilty to those charges.
“His insight as a person who was negatively impacted by the criminal justice system has been very valuable,” Sloan told The Huffington Post.
It certainly seems like a nice respite from Russia-chaos headlines and other Jared and Ivanka Trump news. Though the bill has an uphill battle, and Democrats and civil rights advocates say that it's flawed, this news cycle is so disorienting that a not-so-terrible event almost seems, positive? Maybe I just need sleep.