Talking About the First Step Act

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Our system of criminal justice should uphold the values of fairness, equal justice, and accountability; promote the safety of all communities; and help to prevent harm. Yet we are, unfortunately, far from that vision in our country today. Despite meaningful progress in recent years, we remain saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources, disrupts communities, and devalues rehabilitation. Racial, economic, and other biases impede fair decision making and outcomes. And the system too often disserves people and communities coping with violence and trauma, as well as those accused and convicted of crime, while failing to recognize that these are often the same communities.

Artwork by Alixa García

The First Step Act, Senate bill 3649, aims to address some of the existing flaws in our criminal justice system. As it is currently written, the Act would reform several unfavorable sentencing policies, including decreasing mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. This memo suggests ways of talking about positive reform—whatever one’s position on the details of this legislation—as they evolve.

1. Lead with Values, such as Equal Justice, Due Process, and Community Safety.

Research and experience show that it is more effective to lead with shared values in advocating for justice reform than policy details, statistics, or political rhetoric. Audiences are more open to hearing messages that are framed in terms of values that they share with the speaker.

Highlight how positive justice reform will uphold our society’s commitment to Equal JusticeFairness, and Due Process. Explain that reforms to the current system can achieve true Community Safety. Emphasize Preventing Harm and ensuring Accountability (which is different from retribution). Talk about how each of us probably can relate to the sentiment that one minor offense or infraction should not be Life Defining. And for audiences that prioritize cost or recidivism concerns, lift up the Pragmatism of using prevention and treatment over incarceration and obstacles to reentry.

2. Remember your Audience.

A shared narrative must persuade the undecided, mobilize the base, and minimize the influence of opponents. For specific messaging, keep your intended audience in mind, including their level of familiarity with the issues and particular priorities—be they safety, racial equity, equal justice, cost, faith, libertarian, or other. In every situation, use language that is accessible to your audience.

  • Avoid jargon and unnecessarily technical language.
  • Steer clear of abbreviations, shorthand terms, and acronyms. Say the full names of relevant organizations, laws, and legal provisions to keep all members of your audience engaged.
  • Always refrain from using dehumanizing language, such as “felon,” “offender,” or “criminal” — instead use, “(formerly) incarcerated people”.
  • Explain legal terms in plain English.

3. Frame the Bill’s Positive Provisions as a Commonsense First Step; while Emphasizing the Need for Further Action.

While the First Step Act may be just that, a good first step, it is far from the robust reform that is needed to achieve our nation’s goals and uphold our values. Discuss the importance of continued action and the need to pressure legislators to work on more comprehensive reform—such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences across the board—and to make that reform apply retroactively to people who are unfairly incarcerated today. We must do more to promote prevention and alternatives to incarceration. especially working to prevent legislators from watering down the current version of the act.

4. Talk about Racial Bias and other Forms of Unequal Justice.

A large body of research demonstrates the many ways in which aspects of the criminal justice system result in discrimination against people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people, among others. And a majority of Americans agree that the system is often biased in harmful ways. It’s important to talk about those biases—leading with values and explaining how they affect all of us and prevent us from achieving our full potential as a country. Call out the ways that this bill would and would not address those problems. And remind your audience of the need for additional legislation that will bring about true Equal Justice and Racial Equity in the system.

5. Emphasize Solutions

While a majority of Americans support moving away from harsh sentences, many are unaware of alternatives to incarceration and other reform solutions. Lifting up concrete approaches that are working around the country—such as mental health and addiction treatment, restorative justice, bail reform, and ending mandatory minimum sentences—gives undecided audiences confidence that a new direction is the smart thing as well as the right thing.

Messaging Tips:

Value, Problem, Solution & Action (VPSA).

Lead with VALUES. Shared values help audiences hear messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric.

  • We all want to be treated with dignity and respect, and live in safe communities. Our criminal justice policies should reflect that.

Introduce the PROBLEM. Frame problems as a threat to your vision and values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience.

  • But we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts families and communities.

Pivot quickly to SOLUTIONS. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. Assign responsibility—who can enact this solution?

  • We need true, comprehensive criminal justice reform aimed at righting the problems and inequities created by our current criminal justice system to provide transformative, lasting change. While not perfect, the First Step Act can be a commonsense first step.

Assign an ACTION

  • Tweet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the bill to be debated and voted on by the full Senate.


Sample VPSA Message:


We all want a justice system that upholds the values of equal justice, fairness, and accountability; keeps all communities safe; and helps prevent harm.


But our current bloated and outdated system is failing us. We are locking up huge numbers of Americans when research and experience show us there are better approaches. The human and financial costs are staggering. We are spending far too much money on prisons while approaches that we know prevent crime – like drug treatment, job training, and an effective public education system – languish. We can do better.


It’s time to implement what experience = tells us are effective approaches that ensure fair treatment and promote community safety. An important first step is reforming sentencing laws to require transparency and fit sentences to the circumstances of an offense.


Contact your senators to push for a First Step Act that includes these common-sense reforms.
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