Dec. 20, 2018 – Ending our failed experiment in mass incarceration, along with its devastating effects on communities of color, is among the highest priorities at the Vera Institute of Justice. This goal, shared by bipartisan reformers across the nation, has led to meaningful reforms in many states and jump-started the federal reform process. With the U.S. Senate on the cusp of approving the FIRST STEP Act, the widespread bipartisan national support for criminal justice reform is evident. Assuming this legislation is enacted, we encourage Congress to be even bolder in future reform efforts, to truly reflect this national consensus.

Beginning in the 1970’s with the “War on Drugs,” Congress enacted a sweeping set of harsher, more punitive sanctions for criminal offenses that culminated in the 1994 “Crime Bill.” This federal regime was largely mimicked by states, particularly with the adoption of lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking and other cases. These national policies led to an unprecedented 700 percent-rise in incarceration around the country in both state and federal prisons and devastated communities of color, particularly black communities, nationwide. Our research shows that excessive prison sentences don’t reduce crime or make us safer but can instead harm public safety and even increase crime in some cases. Many states have recognized the failure of those policies and reversed course since then, and Congress took a step down this path with the 2010 passage of the Fair Sentencing Act—a law that greatly reduced federal sentencing disparities for powder and crack cocaine.

The FIRST STEP Act marks the next effort in the history of federal criminal justice reform. While we welcome certain provisions in the bill, we share with other organizations significant concerns.

Many components of the bill will have benefits for individuals within federal prisons. Expanded access to evidence-based programming, as included in the FIRST STEP Act, is critical. We believe that everyone in prison should be able to participate in much-needed behavioral health treatment, education at all levels, job training, and other programs that are crucial to helping people and their families rebuild their lives after prison and succeed in the community and in the workforce. While we are pleased with additional provisions to prohibit using restraints on pregnant incarcerated women and to require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to track its use of solitary confinement (or restrictive housing)—practices central to our work with state corrections agencies for years—we hope that Congress continues to seek reforms that go much further.

Unfortunately, the legislation comes up short in a number of key areas, and we are concerned that some of these provisions will exacerbate existing racial disparities in federal prisons. The FIRST STEP Act fails to take big enough strides in reducing mandatory minimum sentences. Additionally, too many categories of convictions will bar people from earning time credits, and many of these individuals are in the greatest need of incentives to complete programming. Language outlining risk and needs assessments does not adequately protect against disparate racial effects, and, finally, we find it extremely problematic to exclude those tagged as higher risk from transitioning to supervised release.

Vera’s vision for reimagined prison systems centers on human dignity and calls for a deep, substantive accounting of the legacy of slavery and racial oppression that undergirds contemporary prisons, and we have long pushed to change abusive and unacceptable conditions inside prisons and to make prison policies and practices transparent. How we treat individuals determines not just their risk of recidivism, but it has repercussions for their mental health, their future employment, their families and children’s well-being, and the safety of their communities.

We also understand that this vision will take time and tireless energy to bring to fruition and will continue to urge policymakers at all levels to put these principles into practice.

The FIRST STEP Act demonstrates the widespread recognition of how our criminal justice policies have failed our nation’s values and not advanced public safety. We recognize the stiff headwinds that the FIRST STEP Act faced every inch of the way and applaud the bipartisan champions in Congress and the advocacy community who never stopped fighting to improve the bill. But we remain mindful of the great distance left on the path to justice.

We envision a society that respects the dignity of every person and safeguards justice everyone.