To be fair, the justice system needs to be based on rules and procedures that ensure people serve time only for the actual offenses they are convicted of. So why is the Department of Justice now, apparently, engaging in a process that will keep people in jail longer depending on the amount of drugs they might have had on them rather than the actual amount they were convicted of possessing?
Here is what’s happening: Last year, Texas Sen. John Cornyn helped push through Congress a prison reform bill that, in a major bipartisan victory, President Donald Trump signed into law. Now, a year on, a Washington Post investigation suggests the federal bureaucracy may be thwarting the will of the two elected branches of government by how it is administering the First Step Act.
First Step was designed to correct inequities in federal drug sentencing that date back decades by reducing the sentences of some nonviolent offenders. First Step expanded rehabilitative opportunities, increased “good time”-served credits for most federal prisoners and reduced mandatory minimum sentences for many types of drug-related crimes. It was intended to be an initial step to smartly transition nonviolent offenders back into society.
If the reporting is right, officials at the DOJ seem to see it another way and are insisting that eligibility for reduced sentences in crack cocaine cases, for example, be based on the amount of illegal substances that court records suggest the offender might have had instead of the amount that the inmate was convicted of possessing. If this is widespread, the impact is chilling on hundreds, if not thousands, who are deserving of early release.
We asked Cornyn about the DOJ’s actions. In a written response, he told us that he was proud of federal prison reforms and that “the Justice Department should fully implement them without delay.”
That’s a nice dodge that we’re willing to call out. Cornyn and Trump should follow up with DOJ to make sure it follows the letter and spirit of the First Step Act. The coalition of supporters for this law included Sen. Ted Cruz, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fraternal Order of Police and the National District Attorneys Association. So there should be no resistance to implementing it in full. And since Trump has been campaigning on this landmark legislation, we would hope the administration is still fully on board with the law.
We have sympathy for those who want to make sure we don’t go soft on crime. And we leave open the possibility that a case-by-case review might find felons who rightly should remain behind bars. But the laws need to be administered fairly, and gumming up the inner workings of this law will only perpetuate an inequity that Congress and the Trump administration came together to fix.
The first duty here is to get this one right.