Other Opinion: The First Step Act needs a second chance


"Last year we brought the whole country together to achieve a truly momentous milestone. They said it couldn't be done." That was President Donald Trump last month, accepting an award for signing into law criminal-justice reform that allows for the early release of prisoners. Achieving bipartisan support for the landmark law was indeed a significant accomplishment. But the award will prove premature if Trump can't get his administration to support the law.

The First Step Act, passed nearly a year ago, was the most significant overhaul of the federal justice system in a generation. It has led to the release from prison of more than 3,000 inmates who were serving harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes. But, as The Washington Post's Neena Satija, Wesley Lowery and Josh Dawsey reported last week, a rift has emerged between White House supporters of the bill and the Justice Department, which never much liked the legislation and is now seeking to limit the number of inmates who could benefit from it. At issue is the department's interpretation of a section of the law: Instead of determining eligibility based on the amount of crack cocaine an inmate was convicted of possessing, prosecutors are told to use the amount that court records suggest they may have had, which is often much larger.

Judges rejected the Justice Department's reading of the law in the majority of cases examined by Post reporters, but some have agreed with the department, and others have withheld judgment until appeals courts decide the issue. Hundreds of applications for release have been frozen. Prosecutors even have sought to re-incarcerate some inmates who were released. Trump has bragged about freeing certain inmates even as his prosecutors opposed their releases, or were appealing to judges to lock them up again.

"The people that did the deal, including President Trump, wanted to help guys like me," said former inmate Gregory Allen, who celebrated his release with an onstage hug from Trump in April. "But on the flip side, you have federal prosecutors who wake up every day trying to keep guys like me locked up."

In enacting First Step, Republicans and Democrats united behind the proposition that it is both unjust and wasteful - of lives and money - to confine minor criminals who pose no threat. That Oklahoma, a red state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, on Monday released more than 450 inmates in the largest single-day commutation in the country's history underscored the change in thinking about criminal justice. So next time Trump wants to boast about First Step - which he has hailed as allowing for "a second step and a third act" - he should direct his message to the Justice Department and the need for it to update its thinking and implement this important law as Congress, and the president, intended.

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