Black men are biggest beneficiaries of First Step Act

“To be clear, the First Step Act is a win for criminal justice reform. But the Republicans who wrote the law never meant for it to reduce the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. They never intended for it to address the racist war on drugs,” said Michael Harriot in a piece for The Root. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

The First Step Act, which replaced a federal ‘three strikes’ rule that imposed a life sentence for three or more convictions with a 25-year sentence, is benefiting thousands of incarcerated Black men, according to a new report.

More than 1,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were granted sentence reductions in the four months since the First Step Act was signed into law, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).

Their sentences were reduced by a mean of 73 months or 29.4%, as a result of the resentencing provisions allowed under the Act which, in addition to shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, applied resentencing to be applied retroactively to individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010, when the federal government reduced disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

The USSC found that over a quarter of the 1,051 resentencing motions were granted by federal courts in Florida, South Carolina and Virginia.

Over 91% of the individuals whose sentences were shortened were African American and 98% were male, the USSC said.

The average age of those granted resentencing motions was 45, and the average age at the time of the original sentence was 32.

“The 2010 re-set of the crack-powder cocaine disparity, under the Fair Sentencing Act, passed that year, the disparity was aimed at tackling the disproportionate racial impact on nonviolent drug offenders,” according to the Criminal Justice Network’s Crime Report.

Signed into law by President Donald Trump in December, the First Step Act reportedly was the first major overhaul of the nation’s sentencing regime in decades.
“More ambitious overhaul plans had been stalled in Congress, despite widespread bipartisan support,” according to the Criminal Justice Network.

In writing about the latest report on the First Step Act for The Root, Michael Harriot said people should hold off in praising the GOP for reducing sentencing disparities until they understand that the provision that “released these hundreds of Black inmates was not included in the first draft of the First Step Act.”
It did not address the crack vs. cocaine disparity. It didn’t address drug sentencing. It didn’t address sentencing reform at all,” Harriot said.

“These amendments were only included when dozens of organizations like the Color of Change and the Prison Policy Initiative urged Democratic lawmakers to vote against the bill unless Republicans agreed to include prison and sentencing reform initiatives,” he said.

Harriot said conservative senators eventually agreed, much to the dismay of hardcore right-wingers like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

“To be clear, the First Step Act is a win for criminal justice reform. But the Republicans who wrote the law never meant for it to reduce the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. They never intended for it to address the racist war on drugs,” he said.

“Even though some people insist that we must give the president his due,’ the reason hundreds of Black people have been removed from America’s system of mass incarceration is that a Democratic senator wrote a bill, a Democratic president signed it and Democrats forced Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress to make it retroactive,” Harriot said.

In a recent Op-Ed, CNN host Van Jones, who worked with lawmakers on Criminal Justice Reform and the co-founder of the #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps., indicated that he’s pleased with the progress of the First Step Act. “This time last year, practically no one believed that a bipartisan breakthrough of this scale and magnitude was even possible,” wrote Jones, who was on hand for the signing of the legislation.

“For those of us who continue to believe and fight for a victory on what was once considered to be a lost cause, celebrating the First Step Act is something we experience with a great deal of pride,” Jones said.

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