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Nicolais: The First Step Act represents overdue legal reform

Supported by a kaleidoscope of normally divergent political interest groups and politicians, including President Trump, Mitch McConnell continues to drag his feet in the Senate

The election may be over, but the lameduck Congress still has work to finish. At the top of the list should be the criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, currently bogged down in the U.S. Senate.

Affecting both people on trial for crimes and convicts already serving time alike, the reforms represent much-needed progress for a country leading the world in incarceration.

Appropriately named, the First Step Act can only be viewed as an initial effort to overhaul an outdated, unfair, and extraordinarily expensive system.

Mario Nicolais

Of particular importance, the bill curtails mandatory minimum sentences, and institutes programs intended to reduce recidivism. It also includes some long-overdue changes, including a retroactive modification addressing the disparity between sentences related to crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.

The disproportionate impact on African-Americans has plagued our country’s prison system and outside communities for decades.

Beyond bringing much-needed relief on the federal level, the bill could also spur state governments to make significant changes.

For example, Colorado’s indeterminate sentencing laws combined with a flawed rehabilitation program left one high-profile sexual assault victim consumed by “disgust and utter rage” after a Boulder County judge struggled with a decision made justice impossible by the current laws.

Several legislators looked at potential solutions last year, but the laws remain on the books and broken. With a federal reform nudge, the new legislative class may join longtime reform advocates Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and incoming-Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, making the issue a state priority, too.

The First Step Act should be a slam dunk. The measure was cobbled together by a bipartisan group of legislators and politically diverse interest groups, and Jared Kushner ensured that his father-in-law, President Trump, pledged to support it last week. Passage would represent a nearly unimaginable Kumbaya-moment for bitter political rivals.

But not even increasingly rare bipartisan support gets a pass in Washington, D.C. The bill has already been passed by the House, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems intent on quashing it in the Senate.

First he told the media he would only call the bill to the floor if at least 60 senators pledged support. Then McConnell and his allies began applying dog-whistle tactics, calling the bill an “effort to let serious felons out of prison,” leading to an intra-party spat with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

READ:Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Conservative stalwarts who could never be confused as bleeding-heart liberals, both became incensed at attacks. Now McConnell claims the Senate doesn’t have enough time before the end of the year to debate the matter.

If McConnell cannot make the time, maybe he deserves to be the one serving time. It might help him empathize with the people whose lives hang in the balance.

Normally appalled by the president’s tweet-habit, I hope Trump begins warming up his Twitter-thumb to unleash a full-throated throttling of McConnell for holding up progress so many have worked so hard to achieve.

Immune to the pleas of his own caucus, much less the bipartisan voice outside it, McConnell may prove intractable to anything less than a barrage of presidential vitriol aimed at his base.

Apparently motivated primarily by fear, McConnell may have more in common with the people he continues to hurt than he realizes.

Criminal justice reform in America is both ongoing and overdue. While various changes have helped both the incarceration rate and the number of incarcerated people begin a gradual drop over the past decade, that positive pattern would receive a powerful boost from federal legislation.

The First Step Act would make sure progress continued in a meaningful manner. Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, should take up the flag and join their colleagues urging a vote before the end of the year.

There is no need to put off until tomorrow what we knew to be a problem yesterday.

While many legislators won’t be returning in January, this Congress has one last chance to enact important change. I only hope they won’t pull up lame.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq