The First Step Act: A Positive Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law passed earlier this year, allows thousands of incarcerated individuals to work towards an earlier release from prison and could ease future prison sentences. This Act, passing with huge support in both the House and Senate, is effectively the most significant criminal justice reform legislation to pass at the federal level in years.

The First Step Act states that its purpose is “to provide for programs to help reduce the risk that prisoners will recidivate upon release from prison.” Major provisions of the First Step Act include a number of reforms that could drastically alter the sentencing process at the federal level. One major provision makes the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, in order to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, affecting nearly 2,600 federal inmates. In addition, the legislation takes steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences by expanding the methods through which judges can avoid implementing mandatory minimum sentences, easing the federal “three strikes rule“, and restricting the practice of adding gun charges against drug offenders. Through legislating the procedure surrounding sentencing, the First Step Act works to help defendants who may be facing substantial jail time.

Additionally, this Act increases “good time” credits that inmates can earn and allows inmates to get more “earned time” credits through participating in vocational and rehabilitative programs. “Good time” credits previously allowed inmates who avoid disciplinary action against them to get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated to shorten their prison sentence. The First Step Act increases the cap to 54 days, and applies retroactively, allowing some prisoners to qualify for earlier release. Additionally, the law incorporates educational, rehabilitative, and other programs as a way for inmates to get such “earned time” credits, which allow inmates to be released earlier to halfway houses or home confinement.

Beyond aiming to ease high sentences and lessen recidivism rates, the law also aims to improve conditions in federal detention, such as prohibiting prisons from shackling women during childbirth and attempting to establish requirements to place federal inmates in prisons closer to their families.

While the First Step Act appears to meet its aims regarding easing high sentences, there is still dispute regarding the racial and class disparities perpetuated through the algorithms used, as well as the excluded classes of inmates, particularly regarding undocumented immigrants and inmates convicted of certain high-level offenses. The public may have to take a wait and see approach to fully understand the effects that the First Step Act will have on criminal justice reform as a whole—however, supporters of the act view this law as “one step closer to justice and relief for nearly 200,000 people in federal prisons and their families.” 

To read the full text of the First Step Act, please visit:

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5682

If you face criminal charges involving incarceration and have questions about the sentencing process, or any other criminal or immigration matters, contact Hughes Law at (215) 454-6680.

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