In the past months, hundreds of inmates have been released early from federal prison. Some of the released prisoners were elderly or ill, but most were just non-violent offenders who have exhibited good behavior behind bars.
They are the early beneficiaries of the First Step Act, a new law aimed at ending mass incarceration, reducing recidivism, and improving prison conditions. The law marks a significant turning point in federal criminal justice reform. Here’s an overview of the First Step Act, who is impacted by this federal prison system reform, and what to expect going forward.
What is the First Step Act?
The First Step Act is an acronym for the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act. It is expected to change the lives of an estimated 30 percent of the federal prison population over the next decade by slashing sentences, curbing mandatory minimums, improving prison conditions and reducing recidivism rates. The Act was approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was signed by the President late last year. It was one of the few recent bipartisan bills passed in Congress – a notable feat in a political era marred with polarization and gridlock.
Who Does First Step Act Impact?
The First Step Act does not affect the vast majority of prisoners in the U.S. It only applies to inmates in federal prison. It doesn’t apply to prisoners convicted of state crimes and housed in state prisons. Of the 2.1 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, only 180,000 are federal inmates.
Because it only affects the federal prison population, the Act itself has a relatively limited view in the larger criminal justice scheme. It doesn’t have sweeping effects across the criminal justice system, but attempts to move the needle towards less draconian sentencing structures.
What Does the First Step Act Do?
The First Step Act focuses on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, and reforms some of the nation’s harshest sentencing policies. It also gives more protections to women inmates and prepares inmates for life after prison. Here are some of the major provisions of the First Step Act:
- Rewards Good Behavior.A major hallmark of The First Step Act is to initiate time credits for good behavior and participation in vocational and rehabilitative programs. In essence, prisoners will be able to participate in programs offered by the prison in order to reduce their incarceration time. In an effort to bolster these programs, the Act accounts for increased funding for vocational and rehabilitative programs — $50 million per year over the next five years — which will create greater access to education for incarcerated people seeking to prepare for success following their release.
- Allows Sentences to Be Served Outside of Prison.The statute allows for certain prisoners to serve the last portion (not to exceed to 12 months) of their sentence at home. In some instances, inmates facing a terminal illness may also qualify for release to a palliative care facility as an alternative to prison.
- Shortens Minimum Sentences for Non-Violent Drug Offense.Perhaps the largest change promulgated by the First Step Act is the change in sentencing structures. The Act eradicates an automatic life sentence for a person convicted of their third felony drug offense. Now, in lieu of a mandatory life sentence, a person with a third “felony drug offense” or “serious violent felony” will have a minimum 25-year sentence. In conjunction with this change, the First Step Act also changes the minimum sentence of a second felony drug conviction. As opposed to the previous regime where a person who was convicted on their second felony drug offense would receive a minimum 20-year sentence, the First Step Act reduces that number to 15 years. This reduction also applies to those with a “felony drug offense” or “serious violent felony.”
- Eliminates stacked sentences for a first-time firearm violation.The First Step Act reduces the prosecutor’s ability to stack charges for anyone being charged under U.S.C. § 924(c) with their first criminal proceeding for a firearm violation. Historically, a prosecutor could stack charges for any crime where a firearm was involved and the defendant would be subject to more jail time. Now the defendant cannot receive a stacked charge unless they have previously been charged under § 924(c).
- Eases Mandatory Minimum Sentences.The First Step Act has also broadened the scope of defendants who may be eligible to receive a sentence below the statutory minimum. This is known as a “safety valve” where the judge has discretion to give a sentence below the statutory minimum to an individual who qualifies.
- Reduces the Sentencing Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine.While the sentencing changes mentioned above apply going forward, the First Step Act made a substantive change to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which will have retroactive effects. The Fair Sentencing act of 2010 reduced the mandatory sentencing requirement for people in possession of crack cocaine. However, the law, at the time of its enactment, did not apply retroactively. The First Step Act allows the First Sentencing Act to be applied retroactively. This means many people who are currently in prison for possession of crack cocaine, may use this portion of the Act to reduce their sentence or petition for their release.
- Bans Shackling of Pregnant Females.While women incarcerated in the federal system makeup only 7 percent of the total population, the First Step Act also aims to keep their needs in mind. Prior to the First Step Act, pregnant female inmates were required to be shackled before, during, and after giving birth. Now, with a few exceptions, pregnant female inmates will not be restrained from the date their pregnancy is confirmed until postpartum recovery has concluded. The First Step Act also mandates that feminine hygiene products be provided to inmates.
- Keeps Inmates Close to HomeThe First Step Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to house federal prisoners within 500 miles of their family – as long as a facility is available to meet their level of security or medical needs. This ensures that the family members of federal prisoners will have greater access to visit the members of their family that are incarcerated and removes any geographic obstacles that may be in existence.
What’s the Second Step Act?
In April 2019, President Trump announced plans for a Second Step Ac, which will focus on helping prison inmates find employment. This chapter of legislation aims to lower unemployment among former inmates to single digits within five years. And while these are all steps in the right direction, there is still much work to be done in regard to federal prison reform.
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