Before we all start jumping for joy and planning "coming home" parties for our incarcerated loved ones, I think it is important that we all understand what exactly the First Step Act aka Criminal Justice Reform bill is made of.

While I certainly am not against it, I do seek knowledge in the fine print of this bill that is being touted as a saving grace for Black folks. As someone who unabashedly opposes President Trump, I remain skeptical. He has spent two years of his presidency undermining the well being of people of color and immigrants, while also heavily supporting unjust law enforcement. So now he is going to sign a bill that helps "the Blacks" in the courtrooms and penitentiaries just like that? Sounds good I guess.

We need not forget that the bill’s mastermind Jared Kushner and its conservative backers such as Paul Ryan and the Koch brothers are still staunch law and order proponents but now want criminal justice reform? Their ideology alone creates the conditions for mass incarceration and sentencing disparities.

I began to research this bill and read its details for myself and what I have found teeters between good and murky. So let's talk about it.

What‘s Really In The First Step Act?

Perhaps the most beneficial and immediate component could "possibly" be the early release of approximately 2600 federal inmates who were convicted of crack offenses before 2010. That is the year that Congress reduced the disparities in punishment between crack cocaine and the powdered form of the drug. The First Step Act would make the reform retroactive. With crack’s prevalence in many Black neighborhoods in the 80s, the crack penalty hit African Americans much harder than white powder cocaine users. That disparity has been a major example of the racial imbalance in the criminal justice system.

The kicker to this component is that these inmates would still have to petition for early release before a judge and federal prosecutors. In this regard, we would still have to hope and pray for unbiased and fair judges behind the bench and prosecutors who would treat us nobly. We all know that is a reach. Sounds like unicorns and rainbows to me.

The second part of this act focuses on mandatory minimums. Again, this gives federal judges “discretion” to skirt mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Call it an "if they feel like it" pass. These exceptions could be used on non-violent drug offenders with no criminal history. I repeat "could".

The Bill also proposes less severe automatic sentences for certain crimes. For example, serious drug charges would shrink by five to 15 years. The "three strikes" rule, which doles out life sentences for three or more convictions such as violent felonies and drug trafficking would include a 25-year sentence. Other drug charges that receive 20-year sentences would be reduced to 15 years. These shorter mandatory sentences would not be retroactive, which was the selling point for law enforcement backing this act. In a nutshell, this does not help us or those already incarcerated with mandatory sentences.

Some of the other portions of the bill reinforce what is already written in the law. Basically, there is nothing new to see. However, job training, rehabilitation, and education programs in prison will receive $375 million in new funding, and greater use of halfway houses and home confinement is called for in the bill. These are positive benefits in my eyes, so I will throw some credit.

After educating myself, I say all of that to say this: The First Step Act is not a saving grace for Black folks. It is not an early Christmas present. It is a small step in the right direction. The problem lies in the fact that the best parts of this bill all depend on the ethics of those behind the bench. Granting leeway to judges and prosecutors doesn't amount to much if these people remain heavily biased or racist toward Blacks and people of color. We are handing them a pass to do the right thing, but I would err on the side of caution because we all know that white supremacy reigns in the criminal justice system.

In order for this bill to truly be successful, we must continue to push for progressive leadership and support judicial candidates who will morally and ethically do the right thing in the courtroom. This includes voting for people of color within the justice system who are committed to pushing fair and moral punishments.

The significance of each pro and con here will vary depending on your values, goals, and strategy for reform. I am not telling you to oppose this bill, but I am cautioning you to stay woke. Just remember this is not sweeping criminal justice reform. There can be positive results or damning ramifications. It doesn't mean all of our homies are coming home. It doesn't even mean our people aren't still going to get locked up. It simply pacifies us for now, until we see who does the right thing. Oh and it might give some get out of jail free cards,

*The First Step Act May be viewed in it‘s entirety here.

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