‘First Step’ on Prison Reform Is the Right Step

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Congress and President Trump deserve credit. With the bipartisan First Step Act, they’ve taken a meaningful, if modest, step toward evidence-based policies on punishing crime. More ambitious steps should follow next year.

The new law, signed by Trump on Friday, gives judges more discretion to skirt mandatory minimum sentences. It makes retroactive a previous reform that better aligned sentences for crack cocaine with those for powder cocaine. It expands inmates’ access to rehabilitation programs and slightly increases the credits they can earn to reduce their time in federal prison.

Several thousand federal inmates will benefit from these improvements. But the federal system still lags in other reforms that states — even some as conservative as Georgia and Texas — have long since put in place.

One urgent need is to better fund public defenders — to ensure that innocent defendants who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers are never sentenced in the first place. Federal funding for indigent defense is currently a pittance. Yet more than three-quarters of criminal defendants in state courts rely on court-appointed counsel. As caseloads for public defenders have expanded, funding by states has been cut.

The inevitable result is increased pressure on defendants, represented by harried counsel, to plead guilty. The right to a lawyer, which the Supreme Court guaranteed a half-century ago, is of little value if the lawyer has no time to do the job properly. Congress can bolster justice by increasing funding for a vital service.

Congress should also consider the evidence suggesting that many prison sentences could be shorter and still have an adequate punitive effect. Given the high cost of incarceration to taxpayers, and its devastating effects on prisoners and their families, Congress should work with the Justice Department to encourage experimentation with shorter sentences in state as well as federal courts.

Finally, having passed the First Step Act, Congress should revisit it regularly — to monitor how the legislative changes play out in the real world, and expand on its successes.

There may always be politicians unwilling to make sensible reforms for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.” But to avoid wasting money and destroying lives, Congress has a responsibility to recognize — and help the public understand — that while more prison time is the right answer for some crimes, it’s the wrong answer to many others.

Distinguishing the first type from the second should be the focus of extensive research in the years ahead. Meantime, the First Step Act marks a promising start.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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