by Dale Chappell
Thousands of federal prisoners were sent home early. Scores of unfair drug sentences were reduced. Barbaric criminal laws were finally fixed. Federal prisoners were offered more drug treatment and release preparation.
These are some of the things achieved by the First Step Act passed a year ago in December. Now everyone is asking, “What’s next?”
NBC News talked to dozens of criminal justice experts and advocates for criminal justice reforms, as well as prisoners who were released under the First Step Act, about what they think might happen in the next wave of reforms. While everyone agreed that the First Step Act got the ball rolling, their outlook on the next major breakthrough is much less enthusiastic.
“We still have more people behind bars ... than any other country on the planet,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an expert at the Brennan Center, said. “We have so much work to do to re-imagine our system of corrections, our system of justice, so we just need to be careful and not paint sort of a rosy picture of what’s happening.”
Adam Gelb, founder of the Council on Criminal Justice, noted that the criminal justice system in the U.S. “is massive and fragmented.” He warned that “it’s going to continue to take some time to build the political will to tackle many of the more difficult issues.”
At least it’s a sign Congress is willing to work together for criminal justice reforms, Jessica Jackson of #cut50 said, “after years and years and years of the two parties trying to use criminal justice as a way to tear each other down.” Gelb added that it has been a transformation from a system that was “based on gut instinct and anecdotes” to one of decisions made on evidence and research.
And it was evidence and research that busted the myth that crack cocaine is 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine. But for over 20 years, people believed it, and Congress hiked crack sentences through the roof in an effort to stop the sale of crack.
The hardest hit by those harsh sentences were black men and even some black women, who were handed long sentences for crack offenses.
One of those women was Tanesha Bannister, who at age 29 took her crack case to trial and got hit with a life sentence. The government filed a notice with the court about her prior convictions, which required the court to impose life in prison without parole.
But in May 2019, she was released from prison under the First Step Act’s retroactive application of drug guidelines and statutes that had been lowered by Congress and the Sentencing Commission in the mid-2000s, after the hysteria about crack cocaine was proven wrong.
“Basically after being let down for so many times,” she said, “it was just like life was breathed all over again.” She now focuses her efforts on criminal justice reform.
Other experts say that we can’t forget about the states in this next round of reforms. “I think that the states have been moving in this direction now for quite a while,” Gil Kerlikowske, the former drug czar for President Barack Obama, said. He pointed out that the First Step Act was a good signal to the state, “because not all states are on board, and not all states move aggressively.”
Former Pennsylvania lawmaker Tony J. Payton Jr. was more direct: “We’ve got to basically dismantle that entire system.” He said lawmakers need to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, get rid of prosecutorial immunity, and police departments need to be reformed.
Said Bannister, “There’s a lot of work to do ... if I can make a difference in getting a law passed or writing legislation, those are my goals.”
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