Opinion: The FIRST STEP Towards Freedom – By Yosef Stein

As any student of history will tell you, many of the past’s most defining moments were vastly underappreciated while they transpired in the present day of long ago. With the benefit of hindsight, historians are able to take stock of prior eras, identify the occurrences that truly mattered, and distinguish them from those that didn’t. However, it is often true that of two current events that seem to be of comparable significance, two front-page news stories that are given equal weight in the papers in back-to-back years or even in consecutive weeks, one may be left behind in the dustbin of long-forgotten history while the other may grace the pages of history books for millennia to come.

While Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is among the most oft-cited examples of this phenomenon, largely because it literally contains the phrase “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” it is equally true that Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” Address of 1964 altered the course of American history, boosting the future president into the national political spotlight for the first time with a riveting speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s flagging presidential campaign. Years later, Goldwater occupies a relatively minor space in American history and culture, while Reagan’s legacylives on as that of one of the most influential characters in American history – an outcome that would have seemed inconceivable the day after Reagan’s 1964 address aired. It is only with hindsight’s 20/20 vision that we can now see the true significance of the half-hour during which that eloquent speech was broadcast on an unassuming evening in October over 54 years ago. The same could be said of numerous other past events that have been deemed historically significant by scholarship and culture alike but probably seemed to hold little more importance than anything else going on at the time, like Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting crusade or the post-WWII internationalGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (also known as the GATT), each of which set in motion a series of events that would transform the global economy over a number of decades.

All of which brings us to the present day. If you’re anything like me, your curiosity is piqued by the mystery of which modern-day occurrences 22nd century historians, the monarchs of history books yet to be written, might deign historically significant about our lifetimes – and, more specifically, about the current moment in time. While there are presumably several correct answers to this question, and much ink can (and, in my opinion, should) be spilled on this topic, I would like to focus here on politics alone (per usual). In our quest for clues as we seek the most far-reaching political storyline of our time, we should be looking for one primary criterion – the common feature shared by virtually all of the events that wind up being studied in history classes decades and centuries later: staying power. Events that seem to be more of a means than an end, more of a starting point than an end-point, are more likely to cause a ripple effect that continues impacting people for a long time – and thus earn their respective places in historical posterity.

When considering the current state of our political affairs, there are multiple viable candidates for this honor. However, when someday in the future 2018 has been reduced to a single page in the expanded version of US History 101, only one current political event will be lucky enough to grace it – and it won’t be anything as mundane as tax cuts or failed attempts to repeal Obamacare. So which will it be?

One likely answer is the resurgence of tariffs, trade barriers and protectionism – or the slightly overlapping issue of our battle with China for world dominance, a looming fight that’s probably still in its very early innings. However, I think President Trump’s backwards-looking trade tendencies are a mere aberration, a temporary detour along the journey toward true free trade. I believe that Trump’s unorthodox trade policies will either be steered in a constructive direction or abandoned entirely by the next US president, whoever it may be, making Trump’s trade policies a negligible blip on the radar, nothing more than a curiosity for future trade scholars. As for the emerging Cold War between imperialist China and freedom-defending America, I believe that relations are likely to improve in the short term before undergoing a longer-term deterioration, and as such the feud is unlikely to be characterized by anything occurring now.  Additionally, my expectation is that the burgeoning US-China conflict will be far more than just a political story (much like the Cold War with the Soviet Union). As such, I am instead nominating a third candidate for the honor of historical standard-bearer, one that’s alluded to in the title of this article (although, admittedly, I took a rather circuitous route to get to it).

On December 21, 2018, President Donald Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. A landmark piece of legislation that aims to constructively reform our criminal justice system at the federal level, the FIRST STEP Act will have a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the present and millions more in the future. It will decrease mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent crimes, a critical step forward which will give federal judges far more latitude to exercise their judgment in sentencing convicts. It will also improve time-credit incentives for federal prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs in prison, allowing many to shorten their sentences on the back end while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood that they will end up back in prison. Additionally, the new law will ensure that convicts are treated more like the human beings they are (for instance, no more forcing prisoners to give birth in shackles).

In short, the FIRST STEP Act will make America a freer place – a place where fewer Americans spend excessive portions of their lives stripped of their God-given freedoms, a place where someone like Alice Johnson is less likely to end up behind bars for life. Johnson, who was arrested in 1996 with no prior convictions, was sentenced to life in prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense and spent over 20 years in jail before being granted clemency by President Trump. There are many others like her occupying federal prisons, decent, harmless people who had the misfortune of ending up on the wrong side of a brutal and ineffective War On Drugs – to their own detriment and to that of the taxpayer (and yes, misfortune is an accurate characterization, although I won’t make too fine a point of it here). Wisely, the FIRST STEP Act prioritizes improved treatment of non-violent offenders, the bulk of whom are locked up for committing victimless crimes.

However, the effects of this monumental achievement – for which President Trump deserves far more credit than he’s received – are not likely to be limited to the federal justice and prison systems. Increasingly, there is a national recognition that the federal government’s half-century-old War On Drugs, while perhaps well-intentioned, has also destroyed millions of lives while also utterly failing to meaningfully curb drug use. The FIRST STEP Act marks the first legislative de-escalation of the War On Drugs at the federal level since “tough-on-crime” policing first became popularized decades ago. This is a huge deal not only because it offers a fairer deal to tens of thousands of federal prisoners and their families, but also because it marks a turning point – the unofficial beginning of the end of the War On Drugs, which, again, has been a miserable failure by any metric. And this turning point was embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, demonstrating a broad bipartisan consensus that we need to start looking at criminal justice issues in a new, improved and more compassionate light.

I believe that in spite of the relative dearth of attention the FIRST STEP Act is currently receiving from the media (probably in large part due to the fact that President Trump is the one who pulled it over the finish line), it will go down in history as the president’s signature achievement, as a watershed moment that set the stage for broader reforms (at both the federal and state levels) in the years and decades to come. All Americans are deserving of liberty – moreover, are entitled to liberty – unless they pose a verifiable threat to the safety of others. With the overwhelming bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act, our nation has taken a critical first step away from the failed and ill-conceived policies that have victimized far too many Americans for far too long – and a giant leap for mankind towards liberty and justice for all.

Now, that’s the kind of story that ends up in the history books.

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  1. A little wordy, but otherwise point well written. Let’s make sure to point out that this monumental reform was spearheaded, funded and pushed through by frum yidden.

  2. Only time will tell, but the history of righting perceived wrongs is full of examples of pendulum-swinging that takes us too far in the other direction. I don’t know what Ms. Johnson’s “non-violent drug offense” was, but if it was peddling (rather than just possessing) a dangerous and possibly fatal narcotic, then perhaps a significant – if not life – prison term is indeed warranted. Whether this applies to her or not, I fear that others worthy of significant punishment will now escape it.

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