A discussion of the impact of the First Step Act must start by putting the problem its supporters wish to address in perspective. There are currently more than 2.2 million people locked up in state and federal prisons, not to mention local jails, throughout the United States. If you are shocked by that, then consider the following: the U.S. holds the distinction of having a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. That includes countries we label as totalitarian.
Significance of the legislation
The legislation, signed into law by President Trump on December 21, 2018, provides a much-needed fix for a criminal justice system that systematically allows sentences harsher sentences imposed on black men compared to the punishment meted out to white men who commit the same crime. Before reviewing the key provisions of the law, everyone needs to be aware that its most glaring limitation is the extent to which it impacts (or fails to impact) the American criminal justice system.
The law only applies to federal courts and a federal prison system with an inmate population representing less than 10 percent of the total population of people behind bars. The true significance of the legislation -and its ultimate impact on our criminal justice system- is that it represents, as its name implies, a first step toward recognizing a need for sentencing reform. The law could, and hopefully will, provide the impetus for action by state legislators around the country as well.
Key elements of the First Step Act
The key provisions of the First Step Act focus on sentencing and providing an incentive for inmates to earn an early release through participation in programs aimed at preventing recidivism. The legislation includes the following provisions:
- The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 corrected sentencing guidelines that imposed harsher prison sentences on drug offenses involving crack (as opposed to offenses involving cocaine in its powder form), but inmates already serving sentences were not granted relief. The First Step Act makes inmates sentenced under the old guidelines eligible to have their sentences reviewed by making the FSA reforms retroactive in application.
- The Act provides the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for offenders with prior drug convictions. Instead of a 20-year mandatory minimum for someone with a prior drug conviction, the mandatory minimum is reduced to 15 years. So-called 3-strike-offenders subject to a life sentence under the former sentencing guidelines will now be subject to a sentence of 25 years.
- It reduces the age at which inmates are eligible for elderly and compassionate release programs within the federal Bureau of Prisons from 65 to 60 years of age.
- The law provides restrictions on solitary confinement of juvenile offenders and the use of restraints on female inmates who are pregnant.
Firearms offenses subject a person to long mandatory minimum sentences upon conviction and have been the subject of studies by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The practice of stacking on firearms charges when someone is arrested for a drug offense is addressed under the First Step Act with limitations placed upon the practice.
Early release opportunities focus on reducing recidivism
Opposition to the First Step Act challenged its provisions allowing inmates to earn early release from prison. The Act increases the maximum number of days they can earn each year against their prison sentences for good behavior from 47 to 54. It also allows individuals participating in job-training and rehabilitative programs offered within the federal prison system to earn credits toward early release from prison.
Opponents feared the early release provisions would open prison gates and endanger public safety, but proponents of the legislation pointed toward its focus on encouraging inmates to learn and develop vocational skills they can apply toward getting a job once released. In addition to reducing prison populations, it could also contribute to a reduction in the rate of recidivism.
Looking toward the future
The First Step Act is, quite literally, a first step; however, much more work needs to be done. At both the federal and state levels, further reform is necessary to accomplish a true overhaul of America's criminal justice system. The Frist Step Act is a reminder of the importance of continuing efforts at the state level to address sentencing disparities and injustices find ways to fix a criminal justice system in which 5 out of every 6 inmates released from state prisons go on to commit new crimes.