EDITORIAL: One step forward, two steps back in D.C.
Lost amid the storm clouds of partisanship last week was passage of a new law that was not so much silver lining but, for backers of criminal justice reform, a veritable rainbow.
Amid 11th-hour arguments over government funding on Friday, President Donald Trump signed into law a measure known as the “First Step Act” — a series of prison and sentencing reforms as notable for their sweeping changes to the criminal justice system as for their bipartisan backing.
Among other provisions, the new law:
- Expands rehabilitation programs for prisoners and former prisoners;
- Gives judges more discretion in sentencing for non-violent crimes, including most drug-related offenses;
- Requires federal inmates to be imprisoned no more than 500 miles from home, making it easier for loved ones to visit.
The goal is to reduce the nation’s indefensible prison population; the U.S. incarceration rate of some 725 per 100,000 citizens is by far the world’s highest.
The benefits are many: reduced strain on the nation’s overcrowded prison system, fewer ex-convicts returning to crime, and a reduction in the racial disparity that sees African-Americans disproportionately incarcerated.
The bill, long in the works, brought together a number of political factions, not only Democrats and Republicans but civil-rights activists and small-government conservatives. Trump and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner were also instrumental in pushing the measure.
The bill passed with overwhelming support — 87 to 12 in the Senate; 358 to 36 in the House.
“This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody,” Trump trumpeted on Twitter. “When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!”
Unfortunately, “working together” was then given the bum’s rush, as lawmakers and the White House dug in on a budget stand-off that led to a partial government shutdown at midnight Friday.
The sticking point is Trump’s insistence on $5 billion toward his long-promised border wall. All sides had agreed earlier in the week on a temporary funding package that would have provided some $1.6 billion toward border security and the Senate went as far to vote — unanimously — on such a spending plan.
But conservative opinion-molders reportedly got Trump’s ear, arguing that he was caving in on a campaign promise and allowing Democrats to get the better of him. The president, as always, more concerned with his base than his country, rescinded.
Of course, the House could have approved the Senate bill and sent it to the White House for Trump’s veto, after which Congress could have overridden the veto, defusing the crisis. But it was too much to expect a Republican-led Congress to repudiate a Republican president — even one who threw the party’s leaders under the proverbial bus by going back on his word after the Senate vote. Besides, congressional Republicans have been loath to challenge Trump on any issue.
The government shutdown — the third on Trump’s watch — is an unnecessary, unproductive exercise in government dysfunction. Coming, as it did, on the heels of the highly regarded bipartisan criminal reform legislation, it is the proverbial two steps back after the one step forward.
Still, it should not be forgotten that that one step forward, in terms of criminal justice reform, was a big one.