First Step Act Will Spur Nationwide Bipartisan Justice Reform, Panel Says

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

The First Step Act—the nation’s most significant attempt at overhaul of the justice system in decades—will have a significant “trickle-down” effect on state legislatures throughout the country, claims Ohio State Senate President Larry Obhof.

“We have major sentencing reforms (in Ohio) that internally we are calling it the Next Step Act,” Obhof, a Republican, told a conference at John Jay College Thursday.

Larry Obhof

Larry Obhof. Photo by Squire Patton Boggs

“I think that seeing Washington actually come together to make changes in a bipartisan way like this, should spur some states to do the same thing.”

According to Obhof, it’s not about being tough on crime, or weak on crime.

“It’s about being smart on crime,” he said at a panel organized to assess the politics of justice reform following the November midterm elections.

“(It’s about) following policies that make more sense, and that lead not just to better outcomes for offenders but safer communities as well,” he continued, adding that reforms already enacted in his state had reduced recidivism to about 30 percent, substantially lower than the national average.

Obhof spoke at the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, attended by journalists, policymakers and academics from across the country. The two-day conference continued Friday.

Friday’s conference will be livestreamed here.

The Ohio Senate president was joined by Holly Harris, executive director for the Justice Action Network, and Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries—both of whom played a key role in persuading Congress to pass the long-stalled First Step Act last year.

Holly Harris

Holly Harris via Twitter

Harris said that she looks at bipartisanship in a completely different way after watching conservatives develop alliances with progressive or liberal groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights to lobby Congress for passage of the Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December.

“To me, bipartisanship is being strategic with the voices you have at the table, and that doesn’t mean they’re always in the same place or position, and that’s how First Step was passed,” she said.

According to Holden, the stories of individuals who had suffered hardship as a result of inequities in the justice system were equally important in persuading the president to sign the bill, abandoning at least temporarily the “tough-on-crime” approach he advocated during his election campaign.

“You saw it happen with Alice Johnson, which was phenomenal,” Holden said.  “That led to sentencing reform because before that, President Trump, [was] like a lot of people who think everyone who has a life sentence was El Chapo, or the Unabomber, or what have you.”

Johnson, granted clemency by Trump last year after serving more than 21 years of a mandatory life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, was invited by Trump to attend his State of the Union address last month.

Mark Holden

Mark Holden

“That’s what enabled us to get criminal sentencing reform,” said Holden, who added a shout-out to Kim Kardashian for helping to bring Johnson’s case to Trump’s attention.

The First Step Act is expected to allow for earlier release of over 50,000 federal inmates, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

All three speakers made clear they viewed passage of the Act as the beginning of deeper reform across the U.S. justice system.

“My hope is that by seeing people come together at the federal level, by seeing a moderately conservative president sign something like this, it will allow or maybe nudge Republicans across the country to adopt this as well,” said Obhof.

Holden said he hoped federal policymakers would soon consider automatic expungement of criminal records for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Harris said she hoped to see transformative changes to the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice under newly appointed Attorney General William Barr.

Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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