A first step for criminal justice reform

After years of work by advocates, including many constituents of Mennonite Central Committee, criminal justice reform legislation was signed into law by President Trump on December 21.

The law is called the First Step Act and it is just that—a first step. Additional reforms are still needed to address mass incarceration in the U.S., which disproportionately affects communities of color.

But first, what will the new law do?

  • It will reduce a number of mandatory minimum sentences and allow judges more discretion when sentencing individuals. The “three-strike” rule, which imposed a life sentence if someone is convicted of three or more serious crimes, will be reduced to 25 years.
  • It will retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act, a 2010 law that reduced the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.
  • It will provide greater access to drug treatment as well as job training and education for people who are in prison.
  • It ends the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles and prohibits the shackling of pregnant women who are in federal prison.

Moving forward, more reforms are needed. Some mandatory minimum sentences remain in place. The new sentencing reductions that were included need to be applied retroactively. There is concern that risk assessment tools to determine who is eligible for early release or other programs could reflect racial biases. And the reforms only apply to the federal prison system, not state prisons or local jails.

On January 15, 2018, MCC East Coast staff, volunteers and community members gathered at Circle of Hope’s South Broad Street loaction in Philadelphia, Pa. for a Mass Incarceration Service Day event. Attendees of all ages celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by exploring the topic of mass incarceration in the United States, hearing from a panel of formerly incarcerated individuals and community leaders, and assembling basic hygiene items into care kits for those in prison. (Photo/Kris J. Eden)

Looking more broadly, many barriers remain for people leaving prison, including employment, transportation and housing. And the U.S. criminal justice system is still heavily reliant on a retributive model and needs to be made more restorative, as Anabaptists and others have long argued.

So there is still a long way to go. But for now, advocates can celebrate one small step forward that will make a concrete difference for thousands of people who are currently incarcerated.

The writer of Lamentations asks, “When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does the Lord not see it?” (Lam. 3:34-36)

May we continue to see the injustices impacting people who are incarcerated, as we work for even greater reforms.

Learn more and participate in these upcoming events:


Click here for more by Rachel Lyndaker Schlabach.