Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, issued the following statement on the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill:

“The revised First Step Act, S. 3649 is the latest modest step on the path to true criminal justice reform. We are gratified that this bill now includes two measures we identified early-on as essential to its legitimacy – some meaningful sentencing reform and the retroactive application of the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), the 2010 law that reduced the obscene and racist powder and crack cocaine sentencing disparity. LDF has long argued, including in litigation, that the FSA must be applied retroactively.

“However, there are still provisions that deeply trouble us. We have long opposed using risk assessment instruments to determine eligibility for supervised release of prisoners. These tools often produce racially disparate results that cannot be scientifically justified. We hope that the measures included in this bill to address risk assessments will be sufficient to relieve those concerns, and we will closely monitor the development and use of these instruments by the Bureau of Prisons.  Additionally, we are disappointed that two of the sentencing provisions will not apply to persons who are currently incarcerated.  It is unfortunate that Congress would determine that a sentencing scheme, such as the three strikes law that results in a life sentence for drug offenses, is unfair, but not allow persons who are currently incarcerated to benefit from changes to the law. 

“It is vital that as this bill moves forward we set the historical record straight. There has been bipartisan support for comprehensive criminal justice reform for years, and proposed legislation designed to accomplish that goal. This effort did not begin with this administration, nor with any individual aligned with this particular bill. We take nothing away from their efforts to move this process forward. But the strength of this bill – the inclusion of sentencing reform, retroactivity and curbs on mandatory minimums – is the result of the hard line taken by the coalition led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which refused to endorse or accept earlier iterations of this bill by those who pushed to “get something done,” rather than to do the right thing. We are proud of the pressure we applied to make this bill stronger not only for those who are incarcerated, but for those facing harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and we laud the principled stance taken by Senators Booker, Durbin, Harris and Grassley – each of whom stood resolute in their demand for sentencing reform as part of this bill.

“Finally, it is imperative that we take seriously the words “first step.” True criminal justice reform must start first and foremost with policing reform and changes to law enforcement practices that result in mass incarceration. It must include bail reform, and measures that strengthen our public defender system. Meaningful criminal justice reform must include a return to a “Smart on Crime” approach to prosecution by U.S. and district Attorneys. Criminal justice reform must include prison reforms to address the inhumane conditions of incarceration in many of our nation’s prisons, and must allow for a private right of action for violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“We have a great deal of work to do to make our criminal justice system truly just. Those of us who have spent decades defending those who have had their lives crushed by the injustices in the system, will continue to work to move forward meaningful and long-lasting transformation in our criminal justice system.”

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Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.