Taking the Next Step

Last year, Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass a landmark bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, the First Step Act—a bill that, among many things, effectively banned juvenile solitary confinement, reformed the way women are treated behind bars, and made eligible for release over 2,000 currently incarcerated individuals who were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

But that was just a first step—we need to do more.

Once passed, the Next Step Act will be the most ambitious criminal justice reform in decades. It would make serious and substantial reforms to sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, law enforcement practices and training, and re-entry efforts for people who are incarcerated.

The punishing reality is that there are more African American men under criminal supervision today than there were enslaved in 1850. And the negative impacts that has—on individuals, on families, on entire communities—are vast and obvious. From being turned down for jobs to being denied bank loans to being banned from getting food stamps, the American Bar Association points to 45,000 collateral consequences that follow you for the rest of your life if you have a criminal conviction—even for a non-violent offense.

The Next Step Act would work to lower mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, give formerly incarcerated people the right to vote, and reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 18-to-1 to 1-to-1.

More specifically, the Next Step Act will:

  • Provide better training for law enforcement officers on implicit racial bias, de-escalation, and use-of-force.
  • Prohibit racial and religious profiling and improve the reporting of police use-of-force incidents.
  • Eliminate the racially-targeted sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences by reducing it from 18:1 to 1:1.
  • Reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.
  • End the federal prohibition on marijuana and automatically expunge the records of those convicted on charges of marijuana use and possession.
  • Reinvest in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.
  • Improve the ability of those behind bars to stay in touch with their loved ones, which has a proven effect on reducing the risk of recidivism.
  • Remove the ban on public assistance and federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for formerly incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders.
  • Remove the barriers for people with criminal convictions to receiving an occupational license for jobs, such as hairdressers and taxi drivers.

The Next Step Act will also help those who have served their time better reintegrate into society. It will:

  • Reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated individuals.
  • “Ban the box”—prohibit federal employers and contractors from asking a job applicant about their criminal history until the final stages of the interview process.
  • Create a federal pathway to sealing the records of non-violent drug offenses for adults and automatically sealing (and in some cases expunging) juvenile records.

The scales of justice in America haven’t ever been balanced, but if we can come together to pass this legislation, we can finally restore justice to our justice system. That is what it means to dream big.

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