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Law and Politics

U.S. Criminal Justice: Reform

Congress passes First Step Act

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  • Criminal justice is known as the system and delivery of justice on those who have committed crimes. [Britannica]
  • The criminal justice system is a series of government agencies and institutions that seek and enforce the law. [Bureau of Justice Statistics]
  • Criminal justice agencies include the police, judges and courts, and prisons. All fall under the Department of Justice. [U.S. Department of Justice]
  • Since 1970, America's incarcerated population has increased by 700%. [ACLU]
  • Yet, crime rates are near the lowest levels seen in decades. From 1980 to 2012, there has been a 35% drop in violent crime rates. [The Brookings Institute]
  • In 2015, there were over 6.8 million people in jail in America. [Bureau of Justice Statistics]
  • According to the NAACP, blacks are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. [NAACP]
  • The criminal justice system costs taxpayers $80 billion a year -more than triple what is spent on education. [U.S. Department of Education]



SOCIAL: There are over 10.35 million people in prison around the world. What troubles many is that the United States represents 4.4% of the world’s population, yet holds about 22% of the world’s prisoners. [


CIVICS: Reforming the criminal justice system in America is seen as a bipartisan issue; both political parties support change. [The Brookings Institute]



“War on Drugs”

The term was coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971. []


John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief said the administration had two enemies: “the antiwar left and black people”. This calls in to question Nixon’s motives. [Harper’s Magazine]



Sentencing Reform Act, 1984

The law was designed to create consistency in federal sentencing. 


After the law was passed, Congress enacted "mandatory minimums" to increase the fairness in sentencing across America. Mandatory minimums require offenders to serve a predefined term for certain crimes. Judges are bound by law to sentence these terms. [The Brennan Center for Justice]



"Three Strikes" Law, 1994

The law was instituted by President Bill Clinton to fight violent crime.


Once a person commits three felonies, no matter how minor the third is, that person is sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. [ACLU]




War on Drugs

Drug war policies have exploded the prison population. 25% of prisoners (about 364,000 people) are non-violent offenders. [TIME]


Taxpayers have contributed $1 trillion over four decades to the drug war, yet drug addiction rates have remained unchanged. [The Huffington Post]



Mandatory Minimums

Instead of creating a more fair system, many believe the policy of mandatory minimums has driven mass incarceration.


Many believe the policy has taken power away from judges in sentencing. Mandatory minimums often apply to nonviolent drug offenders, forcing judges to harshly punish those who pose little physical danger to the public. [The Brennan Center for Justice]



Three Strikes

Since "Three Strikes" was passed, the federal prison population more than doubled. [BBC]


Clinton has claimed the bill dramatically decreased crime. Some believe this an inaccurate statement, as violent crimes were already declining and leveled out in the 2000s. [BBC]



Set up to fail

Once out of prison, it can be incredibly difficult for an individual to move forward. People with a criminal record often have a difficult time finding and securing a job, being accepted to college, signing a lease, getting a credit card, and even being allowed to vote. [TIME], [The Marshall Project]


  • The First Step Act is a criminal justice reform bill that passed both chambers of Congress. [NPR]

  • President Trump signed the First Step Act into law on December 21, 2018. [Jurist]

  • The law seeks to:

    • curb mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines by giving judges more discretion. [The Marshall Project]

    • incentivize prisoners to partake in vocational and rehabilitative programs. [Vox]

  • The bill had bipartisan support, yet some Republicans think it goes too far while some Democrats think it doesn't go far enough. [Vox]


Key Vocabulary