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Opinion | At Long Last, a Measure of Justice for Some Drug Offenders

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New data about the effects of the First Step Act, a bipartisan prison reform bill that President Trump signed into law in December, is showing that past injustices can be corrected, even in the most politically polarized of times.

Last week, the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that advises federal judges on carrying out changes to sentencing policy, reported that in the four months after the law went into effect, more than 1,000 federal inmates were granted a sentence reduction for offenses involving crack cocaine. In 2010, Congress passed legislation to address these racially unjust sentences, but that change wasn’t retroactive.

The old crack laws were a vestige of the racist war on drugs started in the 1970s. Offenders convicted of crack-related offenses, a vast majority of them African-American, received unduly punitive sentences — about 100 times harsher than those imposed on white, more affluent offenders who were convicted of crimes related to powdered cocaine. (Crack is the rock form of powdered cocaine.)

Under the First Step Act’s retroactive application, federal inmates across the country who had been sentenced under the old crack laws began to apply for relief — and judges began reducing their sentences, which resulted in many of them being set free. According to the Sentencing Commission, the average sentence reduction has been 73 months, or a little more than six years.

Ninety-one percent of those people who have benefited from the reduction are black.

Matthew Charles, whom Mr. Trump invited to the State of the Union address in February, was among the first people to invoke the First Step Act in court. A Sentencing Commission analysis estimated that as of May 2018 there were around 2,660 cases like Mr. Charles’s — people sentenced under repudiated crack laws who are now eligible for more equitable treatment.

There’s more to the First Step Act than sentencing reform. Under William Barr, the attorney general, the Justice Department has begun to put into effect other requirements of the law, such as the development of a risk and needs assessment tool that the Trump administration expects will lead to the release of an additional 3,000 inmates once fully completed, with many thousands more expected to benefit in the years ahead — inmates who are deemed to be low-risk and who demonstrate good conduct while incarcerated.

The success of the law’s sentencing measures is significant, however, given that many civil rights advocates expressed sharp opposition to earlier, weaker versions of the bill, even as the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mounted his own opposition to the legislation.

Still, more can be done. As with any law, the First Step Act’s success is tied to a chief executive’s willingness to see it flourish. Mr. Trump has yet to renominate individuals to fill four vacancies at the Sentencing Commission, which currently lacks a quorum and is hamstrung from moving forward on technical components of the First Step Act that could give judges greater guidance on “compassionate release” and other provisions that would shorten some prison sentences.

The president can be proud of the passage of the First Step Act. But the law’s true measure, and promise, will be determined by how it is enforced to do justice on the ground.





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