It’s a first step.
No, not Gov.-elect Janet Mills’ cabinet announcements. Or the budget template that Gov. Paul LePage will leave on the desk upon his departure.
Rather, it is the so-called First Step Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation supported by everyone from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, George Soros to the Koch network. Under the cover of chaos from the Federal Reserve, stock market, and Christmas, the Senate and House have now each passed it and have started the process to work out their differences.
What does it do? In short, it reforms parts of our federal criminal justice system. Although already enforced as a matter of policy, it codifies that pregnant women may not be placed in restraints. It gives judges more authority to deal with the nuanced circumstances of those convicted, rather than one-size-fits-all prescriptive penalties. And it provides a path for inmates to get out of prison earlier, if they learn skills enabling them to be productive members of society.
It’s a first step. We spend an inordinate amount of money, time, and effort putting — and keeping — people behind bars. Some probably need to be there. But many others find themselves in the custody of the corrections system due to extraneous factors. Mental institutions were a stain on our society, but many individuals with psychiatric issues have simply found themselves in jail and prison instead.
However, another problem underlies our national infatuation with incarceration. Political officials of all parties and places always want to “do something” in response to something bad occurring. They say that, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The same holds true with legislators: every issue which comes across their desk deserves a law.
That instinct led Congress to pass “three strike” laws, which mandated life sentences, with no room for common sense in courtrooms. It probably provided a great sound bite when reelection time inevitably came, but had very real impacts on people’s lives. Or passing laws with ambiguous terminology that let an enterprising prosecutor leverage an illegal agricultural burn into charges for “terrorism.”
The First Step Act is a first step, because the next steps are much harder. While every politician is likely fearful of an accusation that they are “soft on crime,” there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of federal crimes that should be struck from the statute books. Not because they shouldn’t be crimes, but rather they shouldn’t be federal crimes. We have 50 state governments, together with territories and districts, that all enact their own laws.
The other big step occurs in each state. While Maine specifically, and New England generally, is is ahead of the curve by trailing behind national incarceration rates, many other states have not need fit to follow our lead. Maybe they should.
As baby boomers continue to age out of our workforce and the economy continues to grow, we need people to fill jobs. Plenty has been written and said about immigrants filling those jobs, but we have Americans who could likely learn those skills — in construction, manufacturing, and food service — and pay taxes, instead of costing tax dollars.
Let’s hope for a Christmas miracle and that Congress can get good policy passed, without worrying about political advantage. That would be a great first step to start 2019.