The House Judiciary Committee approved a prison reform bill by a 25-5 vote on Wednesday (May 9) that has been widely criticized by several civil rights groups.
Called the First Step Act, the bill was touted as a push for prison program funding to reduce recidivism rates, The Hill reported. The measure, championed by Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY), allows the Bureau of Prisons to spend $50 million a year for five years on education and job training programs.
“The FIRST STEP Act would ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the programming that will enable them to succeed,” Van Jones, president and co-founder of #cut50, wrote in a release. “The bill also includes important provisions for incarcerated women such as ending the shackling of women giving birth behind bars and providing hygiene items at no charge. It also expands compassionate release, giving elderly and terminally ill a pathway home.”
However, the measure falls a bit short of expectations for several reasons, including its exclusion of guidelines for jail sentencing reform.
Many activists have pointed out that harsh mandatory-minimum sentences have long contributed to mass incarceration, which has targeted people of color for decades and been tied to the War on Drugs. Without language that speaks to reducing jail sentences for low-level offenders, the bill falls slightly flat, opponents said.
“Momentum for sentencing reform is being derailed by a Trump Administration effort that is misguided, ideological, and outdated,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said in a release. “This narrow ‘prison reform’ bill won’t deliver the transformative change we need. The only way to achieve that is by passing strong, bipartisan, comprehensive sentencing reform.”
The NAACP, ACLU, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other groups have opposed the measure, which has gained steam despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ public fight against sentencing reform.
It’s no secret that the Trump administration has rolled back several Obama-era regulations, including ones pertaining to helping to end mass incarceration. Officials have pushed law-and-order politics, making it hard to fathom that the White House would support any bill for meaningful reform of the nation’s broken criminal justice system.
Also, the bill left out Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee‘s proposal for a federal prison pilot program that would allow female inmates who give birth to live with their child in a prison housing unit for up to two-and-a-half years, The Hill reported.
The bill must be changed into a comprehensive criminal justice reform measure that includes needed changes to fix the country’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, activists have said. The question is if this administration will ever truly take up this fight—yet it is a question that has already prompted a response of “no” from many across the nation.
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