How Kim Kardashian, the Koch brothers, and Jared Kushner moved the needle on criminal justice reform

Daniel Medwed. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hailed as “sweeping” and “historic,” the criminal justice reform bill that garnered bipartisan support in both the Senate and House this week has landed on President Trump’s desk. If his tweets are any indication, Trump is poised to sign the legislation into law, capping a yearslong effort to reform the federal prison system.

Among the proposed changes, the measure supports the expansion of job training and other programming intended to reduce recidivism rates among federal prisoners. It also expands early-release programs and amends sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The bill, known as the First Step Act, was passed by the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan 87-12 vote and subsequently by the House of Representatives with a 358-36 vote. Northeastern criminal law scholar Daniel Medwed called it an important and symbolic moment in criminal justice reform.

“It shows that bipartisan awakening about the need to decriminalize and decarcerate,” said Medwed, University Distinguished Professor of Law and Criminal Justice. “From the left, it speaks more to the issue of individual liberty and autonomy. From the right, it’s often framed as an exorbitant, unnecessary expense.”

It wasn’t just conservatives and liberals who coalesced around this issue; the First Step Act, officially titled the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, brought together an unlikely coterie of supporters that included celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and business magnates such as the Koch brothers.

Medwed explains what the legislation changes and its potential implications for state prisons.

What are some of the more immediate or salient changes we’ll see if this legislation is signed into law?

The main feature is this bill will increase the eligibility of certain prisoners to get good time credit (a sentence reduction given to prisoners who maintain good behavior while imprisoned) and also augment the number of early-release programs so that people will be better prepared for the world when they are actually free.

There are additional regulations about compassionate release for people who are terminally ill. Many prisons unfortunately have horrendous restrictions on pregnant women, physical restrictions that have been challenged in courts across the country. Evidently, this legislation would address some of that. But I think the signature component of the bill concerns initial re-entry, and basically it’s a way of letting non-violent offenders get out of federal prison more quickly and in a state of greater preparedness.

How does the passage of this bill potentially set the stage for additional changes on the state level?

Every state has slightly different procedures in these areas. I suspect it will have very little, if any, practical impact on state systems. Most importantly, a lot of the opposition to criminal justice reform, at least historically, has come from conservatives, because the conservative argument often is being tough on crime, victims’ rights, things like that. And to see legislation like this essentially emanating from the right as opposed to the left is exciting, because of the composition of the Senate, it had to come from the right. I think that could embolden, inspire, maybe educate some state-level conservatives who haven’t thought about this issue very much to begin thinking about it.

What changes sought by activists as well as Democrats and Republicans were not included in the First Step Act? In other words, what is there still left to be desired about this bill?

The biggest thing left on the table I think was a true overhaul of federal sentencing practices.  The next frontier, and the most important frontier, if Congress genuinely wants to engage in significant criminal justice reform, is to leave the harsh mandatory sentencing rules behind and give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime.

What does this mean for the Trump administration?

Jared Kushner, by all accounts, has made criminal justice reform a key part of his own policy platform, which is I think in part because of his father’s experience in prison. So I don’t know how this cuts for the Trump administration. One possible benefit for the Trump administration is there could be some cost savings for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And yes, I think it will make the plight of federal prisoners marginally better.