As of December 27, there were 180,429 prisoners in federal custody. Think about that a minute — about a fifth the population of San Francisco behind bars for interstate crimes. No one seriously thinks this many people should be housed, clothed, fed, and secured with federal tax dollars. (More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. when you include state and local facilities, way more than any other country in the world, including China, which has four times as many people and notoriously strict laws).
There are two reasons for the staggering number of federal inmates: over-criminalization and excessive sentences. In other words, too many things you can do can land you in federal prison: crimes like fishing in the wrong waters, or charging a health insurer for dental work performed by an unlicensed dentist. And when people are locked up for federal crimes, it is for too long, like when a teenage street-level drug dealer is held liable for the whole drug conspiracy that he is part of.
So what a breath of fresh air when the lame-duck Congress briefly came together at the end of 2018 to agree on federal criminal justice reform. Pres. Donald J. Trump signed the so-called “First Step Act” into law on December 21. The press crowed that Trump would “go down in history” and that the changes represented a “sweeping reform.” Probably none of them read the 148-page law, which will have no effect on the vast majority of people caught up in the federal criminal justice system. At a human level, the most important provision of the new law is that it bans the barbaric practice of using restraints on female inmates as they are giving birth. You read that correctly. Until recently the Bureau of Prisons routinely shackled women in the hospital, in labor, as though they might take the opportunity to escape as their baby was being born. It took Donald Trump and a voted-out-of-office Republican congress to finally make that illegal.