First Step Act makes sense

Sen. Charles Grassley played key role in this reform

Any prison system should perform two key functions. First, it should punish those who break laws. Second, and perhaps most crucially, it should make it more likely that when prison terms end and offenders return to society they are less likely to commit additional crimes.

Unfortunately, America’s judicial and incarceration systems fall short of accomplishing either task well. The goal of the First Step Act, which was passed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 18, is to reform both sentencing rules and federal prisons. Earlier laws intended to make sentences imposed more uniform and harsh had unanticipated flaws that resulted in unfairness for some inmates. The First Step Act seeks to eliminate serious inequities. It also gives federal judges more flexibility to make each punishment appropriate to the offender’s situation. The new law also will change what happens while a person is in prison. It strengthens programs designed to make it possible for inmates to function well in society when they are released. The hope is to reduce greatly the number of repeat offenders. If that goal is achieved it will make individuals who have spent time in federal prisons more successful participants in our communities. That is a good result for them. It also will make our nation a safer place for all of us.

The Senate passed the First Step Act by a vote of 87-12. That means it had overwhelming bipartisan support. Even the most casual observer will realize that such an accomplishment is a rarity in our sharply divided politics. It was made possible by a multiyear effort by several members of the Senate to devise a bipartisan strategy to begin correcting serious problems in sentencing fairness and the effectiveness of prisons.

Sen. Charles Grassley, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, played a critical leadership role in making this once-in-a-generation reform package possible. The Iowa Republican partnered with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Democratic whip, to craft innovative legislation that could command broad support in both houses of Congress and win presidential approval. With important assistance from other senators they labored to win the support necessary to move this legislation from a reform proposal to a tangible reality.

“The First Step Act is the most significant change to our system of criminal justice in decades,” Grassley said in a statement about the Senate’s approval of the bill. “It was supported by an amazing coalition of unlikely partners — progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans, law enforcement groups and civil rights groups, business leaders and faith-based organizations. By passing this legislation, we will now begin to relieve our overcrowded prisons, redirect funding to our most pressing crime prevention efforts, make our communities safer, and ensure the integrity of our justice system.”

The Messenger applauds Grassley’s indispensable leadership in making this important legislative accomplishment possible. His efforts demonstrate that it is possible to bring about productive bipartisan successes. We hope that it will inspire others in Congress to work harder to find the common ground that will make our government better serve the American nation.