Doug Collins has this notable new commentary at Fox News under the headline “First Step Act showed Republicans and Democrats can work together to make justice system more just.” I would recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:
Four years ago this week, just before Christmas, both parties came together for a holiday miracle: passing the First Step Act, the most significant change to our justice system in decades. It was a win for Republicans and Democrats in Congress; a win for then-President Donald Trump; and, more importantly, a win for thousands of American families whose lives were changed for the better through a series of prison and sentencing reforms that were fair, safe, and spoke to American values.
To date, over 7,500 folks have been able to regain their lives after the passage of the First Step Act. These are Americans who made mistakes years ago, received unduly harsh penalties that sent them to prison for decades, and have now regained their freedom. This year, they get to spend Christmas at home with their families thanks to this legislation.
It goes to show that when it comes to criminal justice reform, major progress is more than possible; I’ve witnessed it firsthand. One of my proudest moments in Congress was seeing that bipartisan bill, which I worked across the aisle to put together with now-Minority Leader-elect Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, get signed into law at Trump’s desk. It was a reminder of how much we can get done, regardless of party, on the biggest issues of the day….
As a Christian, I firmly believe that we must support redemption for those who have atoned. The incredible, redemptive effect that passing bills like the First Step Act have across our country cannot be ignored. And as a conservative, I believe in cutting unnecessary government waste and trimming out-of-control spending, including within our justice system. It all comes down to what I call “M&M” — money and morals — and smart criminal justice legislation speaks to both….
As its name suggested, the First Step Act was just the first step, and there are many more steps that be taken to make our federal justice system fairer and more effective. Even while there is so much we are divided on as a country, when it comes to reforming our broken criminal justice system, there are plenty of promising paths forward. One of those next steps is ending one of the most unjust laws we have on the books: the cocaine and crack sentencing disparity….
Unfortunately, Congress missed its chance to build on the First Step Act. This week, the EQUAL Act — the bipartisan bill to eliminate the sentencing disparity — was left out of end-of-year Senate negotiations. And while the Department of Justice did recently issue sentencing guidance to fix the disparity for future cases, it is still not a permanent solution and will not retroactively help the thousands of folks still in prison serving long sentences that don’t fit the crime….
Yet despite not making it over the finish line this year, I am extremely hopeful for the future: both for this legislation, and for more paradigm-shifting criminal justice reform. Before its untimely demise in the Senate, the EQUAL Act was approved with massive support from both the most conservative and liberal wings of the House, proving that bipartisan agreement on effective criminal justice policy is ripe for consideration in the coming Congress…. Let’s hope and pray that this time next year, our country will have taken the next step forward on criminal justice reform, and continue the great work we started with the First Step Act.
I am quite pleased to see former Rep Collins continue to advocate for the EQUAL Act both “as a Christian” and “as a conservative.” But I think he undersells the achievements of the FIRST STEP Act when he speaks only of “over 7,500 folks have been able to regain their lives after the passage of the First Step Act.” This (somewhat unclear) BOP page, indicates as of this writing that there have been 11,421 “First Step Act releases,” and I suspect that number reflects only those who have gotten out a bit earlier thanks to the “earned time” credits of the FSA.
In addition, the BOP page reports nearly 4000 persons have benefitted from retroactive crack sentence reductions and andother nearly 4400 have benefitted from compassionate release thanks to new FSA processes. And these BOP numbers would seem to be undercounts, as the US Sentencing Commission has reported here over 4200 retroactive sentence reductions and has reported here over 4500 grants of compassionte release. (Of course, not everyone getting sentence reductions is getting immediately released from prison, but likely most are.) The BOP page also reports that over 1200 persons have benefitted from expanded elderly home confinement provided by the FSA.
Though a precise accounting the the exact number of federal prisonsers who have been released somewhat earlier thanks to the First Step Act is hard to pin down, I do think it is probably twice and maybe three times as large as the 7,500 number stated by Collins. And, assuming the newly filled US Sentencing Commission makes a variety of guideline amendments consistent with the FSA, the impacts of the First Step Act will continue to echo through the federal prison population.