A “First Step Act” Towards Justice

By now we should know better than to be surprised by anything President Donald Trump might say or “tweet” or do, but we were nonetheless a bit taken aback by his endorsement of a bi-partisan Senate “First Step Act” that a newly elected Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will soon consider and probably pass. It’s at least slightly surprising because the act has bipartisan support, which Trump usually regards as sign of a sucker’s deal, and all the more so because the bill is arguably weak on the very sort of crime that Trump has vowed to be strong against.
The bill would lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, cut the “third strike” rule on a third penalty felony conviction from a life sentence to 25 years, reduce the disparity between sentences for the snorted powder cocaine that suburban white folks tend to use and the smoked “crack” cocaine that inner-city black folks tend to use, and it also reduces the mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving the use of a firearm in a drug deal or violent crime. Trump has already won a major Democratic concession that the new “three strikes” rule won’t be changed retroactively, and thus he can rightly boast that the bill would still leave a lot of dangerous people behind bars, but the self-proclaimed best-ever law-and-order deal-maker has clearly made some pretty significant concessions of his own.
Which might turn out well enough for both Trump and the Democratic party, and we expect it will even yield some net positive results for the public at large, but something in our hardened Republican souls expects some dire consequences as well.
That bi-partisan “First Step Act” is intended as a corrective to the exceedingly tough-on-crime legislation of the ’70s ad ’80s, but we’re old enough to remember that era well. The crime rate really was alarming back then, At one point here in Wichita we had a murder a week, which far surpassed even the death toll of “Wicked Wichita” back in its “Wild West” days, and outpaced the death toll of war-torn Belfast in Northern Ireland, and it was so bad that there was a national bipartisan consensus for stiff mandatory minimum sentences. Those laws disproportionately locked up black offenders, many of whom were no more guilty than the cocaine-sniffing white suburbanites who got off easier, but those crimes had such a disproportionate number of black victims that most of the Congressional Black Caucus and their mostly law-abiding constituencies also signed off on the tough-on-crime legislation.
Since then the crime rate around the country has fallen to a rate that it’s one of the feel-good stories of the last 30 years or so. Maybe it’s because both suburban white folk and inner-city black folk have figured out that sniffing or smoking cocaine is a bad idea, and maybe it’s because Roe v. Wade aborted a lot of wanted children destined to become criminals, and maybe it’s just a population that’s aging well past the prime crime-commiting ages, but we still think that locking up a lot of criminals has also had something to do with that remarkable drop in crime.
Over the last couple of years there’s been an uptick in the nation’s violent crime rate, but most of that is attributable to currently “wild west” Chicago and a couple of other large and lawless cities run by Democratic machines, so we can hardly blame Trump for having previously made such political hay of that embarrassing fact. Which makes it all the more surprising that the constantly alarmist Trump is now agreeing with those moderate Republicans and radical Democrats that things are now so calm we can start reducing mandatory sentences for gun-wielding felons.
At this point the ghetto “crack” cocaine epidemic seems to have gone the way of the videotape recorder and land line telephone around the country, and all the respectable drug-abusing white folks we know are smoking that increasingly legal marijuana rather than sniffing powdered cocaine, and we hope that some just legal system can reasonably deal with that. The “First Step Act” might well  bolster that 8 percent approval rating Afriican-Americans that likes to brag about, and probably won’t much bother even hid most racist white  his true believers. but on the other hand we don’t hold out much hope that Trump and those damned Democrats will come to any deal that reaches that  hard-to-find sweet spot between harsh justice and tender mercy.

— Bud Norman

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