Law Enforcement Comes Out Strong Against New FIRST STEP

Four orgs. issue letter opposing bill

A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma
A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma / Getty Images

Leaders of four law enforcement groups slammed the latest version of Senate criminal justice legislation in a Tuesday letter to lawmakers obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Representatives of the Association of Federal Narcotics Agents, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, the National Association of Police Organizations, and the National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition cosigned a letter in which they strenuously objected to the latest version of the FIRST STEP Act.

If passed, FIRST STEP would reduce federal incarceration by implementing a new system of early release through "good time" credits, a proposal that could see as many as 4,000 people immediately released from federal detention. Bill proponent Jared Kushner is expected to pitch the new version, including revisions that cut mandatory minimums and expand judicial discretion, to President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

If the bill gets Trump's sign off, many expect it to come to a vote in the Senate before that body adjourns at the end of the year.

FIRST STEP previously earned strong opposition from groups like the NAAUSA and National Sheriffs' Association. Proponents of the new version scored a significant endorsement last week with the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police (although, as the Free Beacon previously reported, it is not clear if the bill will do what the FOP believes it will).

However, the Tuesday letter from law enforcement leaders indicates that the FOP may be a lone voice among its peers, joining as the Tuesday letter does with another critical letter from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America last week.

This latest objection from the law enforcement community, directed to Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), argues that little has changed in the latest version of FIRST STEP, meaning that law enforcement's opposition should be unwavering.

"Our review of the bill reflects no improvements that would reduce our multiple and serious concerns about its deadly and destructive impact upon public safety and our capacity to deter and prosecute crime throughout the country," the letter reads.

Especially concerning to its authors is the bill's failure to exclude many drug offenders—including essentially all drug traffickers—from its extension of good time credits. Although an exclusion has been inserted into the new version to preclude convicted leaders of fentanyl smuggling conspiracies, street dealers of fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs could still walk free, a substantial concern given fentanyl claimed almost 30,000 lives last year.

The newly revised FIRST STEP Act does exclude certain federal offenders from benefiting from the good-time-credit expansion, but many "violent offenders, sex offenders, or gang members" are left out of that exclusion. The bill's language, for example, does not exclude from credits individuals who commit hate crimes. transport minors for sexual purposes, or operate a "continuing criminal enterprise" to distribute drugs.

What is more, the letter's authors argue, the definition of activities that qualify an individual for good time credits is so expansive as to not actively alter most inmates' behavior from the status quo.

"Virtually all BOP inmates already participate in activities that would qualify them for the bill's time credit program. In other words, virtually all BOP inmates eligible for time credits would receive credits without having to change anything about their current behavior or program participation," they write.

"Since the bill does not require BOP inmates to change anything about their current behavior or program participation to receive time credits, it will incentivize and result in offenders actually spending less time in recidivism reduction programming, and will let the worst drug traffickers out of prison even earlier. This will make our streets and neighborhoods more dangerous, because it will allow early release without improving offender rehabilitation," the letter reads.

The law enforcement leaders' concerns are not restricted to the good time credit system and its exclusions, however. They also raise objections to the reductions in mandatory minimums: for example, a repeat felony drug offender would get 15 years rather than 20, while a three-time offender would get 25 years rather than life.

Under section 402 of the bill, judges are granted broad discretion to waive mandatory minimums altogether for many drug offenders. All of these changes, the authors argue, have the potential to unwittingly put dangerous federal offenders back on the street faster.

"While we support true second chances that bring about the productive return of prisoners to their communities," the letter's authors write, "we also know that many offenders that will benefit from provisions of this legislation have long criminal histories that far exceed the ‘second chance' that this legislation is designed to provide. By ignoring that fact alone, this legislation falls far short of those goals and is little more than a sentence leniency measure."