WASHINGTON – Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-43) issued a statement on the First Step Act of 2018, which passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and is now the law of the land. 

“I applaud the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for, and passage of, the First Step Act by the U.S. Congress. As a lifelong civil rights advocate and a leader in the fight for criminal justice reform, I believe that this bill is one step in a journey of many miles to enacting the comprehensive reforms our country, communities, and citizens – particularly people of color — so desperately need and deserve.

“Earlier this year, I shared the concerns of almost every criminal justice organization in the country regarding the First Step Act: the bill, as originally drafted, did next to nothing to reform our criminal justice system’s draconian sentencing practices and processes. While I applaud my colleagues’ efforts to amend the bill, there are still provisions within this law that are deeply troubling to me.  The First Step Act only applies to the federal system, which imprisons only a small fraction—about 180,000—of the 2.1 million people currently incarcerated in the United States. The bill also fails to end life without parole and other extreme sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system – a step that a majority of states, including California, have already taken. The bill also includes a ‘risk assessment system’ tool that may rely on algorithms to determine which inmates are eligible for ‘earned time credits’ that can be used for early release. I am concerned that such a tool and algorithm, if created without a strong understanding of the racial inequities in our criminal justice system, could have a discriminatory effect on people of color.

“However, I am pleased that the amended bill includes a wide range of sentencing reforms that are much needed if we are ever to fix our broken criminal justice system. The new version would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from a ratio of 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. More than 2,600 people will now have the opportunity to have their sentences reduced because of this provision.

“I am especially thrilled that the amended version of the First Step Act also makes initial strides towards ending mandatory minimum sentencing – an issue that I have championed for more than 20 years. The bill increases judges’ discretion to both reject and/or reduce mandatory minimums for people convicted of certain drug offenses, which will impact more than 2,000 people annually. The new bill also reforms the unfair two- and three-strike laws by reducing the mandatory life sentence for a third drug felony to 25 years, and the mandatory sentence for a second drug felony from 20 to 15 years.

“I have worked for decades to end mass incarceration and reverse the effects of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses — policies that originated from Congress’ ill-conceived response to the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic and the public outcry following the death of college athlete Len Bias in 1986. Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose generated significant media coverage and led to the enactment of so-called ‘tough on crime’ policies at the state and federal levels, which have disproportionately incarcerated African Americans and Latinos.  For many years, as a member or former member of the House Judiciary Committee, I introduced legislation such as the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act and the Mandatory Minimum Reform Act, which would restore judicial discretion and greatly reduce the use of cruel mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. For the past 20 years, I have also hosted annual forums on mandatory minimum sentences and criminal justice reform during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) Annual Legislative Conference.  These forums have featured an esteemed panel of advocates — including Kemba Smith Pradia — who are my partners and allies in this fight. Kemba Smith Pradia was sentenced to serve a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 24.5 years for a first-time, non-violent offense. Her sentence was commuted under the Clinton Administration, and she has since become known as the poster child for sentencing reform. I have also partnered with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the Open Society Institute, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Sentencing Project during my annual forum, which continues to be one of the most well-attended events during the conference.

“The First Step Act is far from perfect, but I join my colleagues and criminal justice advocates who are pleased with the amended provisions of the bill. I remain committed to my career-long effort to reform our criminal justice system and eradicate mandatory minimum drug sentences, which we know have destroyed the lives of millions of Americans and have had devastating effects on people of color – particularly African Americans. These reforms are a small, but nonetheless important, step toward a more equitable and just judicial system.”