The media has been framing Tuesday’s passage of the First Step Act as a victory for bipartisanship. The bill expands job training and other programs in federal prisons and expands early-release programs. It also changes sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, among other reforms.
A New York Times photojournalist captured a hug between Senators Corey Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. This “touching” moment captured the two overcoming their differences (Democrat and Republican, black and white, young and old, urban and rural) to achieve something great.
Unfortunately, that narrative is a lie. It has a powerful appeal to a public desperate for any sign of unity in these hyper-partisan times, but it also dishonestly paints the two sides as true partners on this issue.
Though it’s true that many Republicans and President Trump support the bill, to label this a “bipartisan” accomplishment is giving the GOP way too much credit. Liberals have supported criminal justice reform for years, particularly liberals from communities of color which have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been content to watch the lives of young minorities destroyed by an overzealous justice system as long as they could position themselves as “tough on crime” in front of their white constituents. While the bill sailed through the Senate on an 82-12 vote, there was one distinct pattern among those who opposed the bill…
Every Democrat voted yes, and all the opposition came from Republicans. Criminal justice reform supporters had to fight Republican opponents just to get this a vote on the Senate floor. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, called the measure a “jailbreak bill.”
Even the bill that passed is just a watered-down version of a bill proposed while Obama was in office. That bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, was blocked by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans couldn’t stomach the thought of passing anything supported by the first black president, but they are willing to do the right thing when their own guy needs a PR win coming off a bruising midterm election.
Lest you think President Trump is actually sincere in his commitment to reducing mass incarceration, his Department of Education announced they planned to rescind Obama-era policies that sought to ensure minority students are not unfairly disciplined in schools on the same day as the Senate passed the First Step Act.
For minority students, the link between being subject to harsh, discriminatory disciplinary policies in school and later ending up in prison is so strong it has been called the “school to prison pipeline.” According to a 2014 brief from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. While black students represent just 16% of the enrolled student population, they account for 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.
The passage of the First Step Act was a step in the right direction, even if the Department of Education took a huge step backward on the same day. However, people who care about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, particularly those in the communities of color affected by it, should know who their true friends are. Don’t be confused by those in the media talking about “bipartisan” support for reform, only by electing Democrats can more reform be accomplished.