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The First Step Act would reform federal sentencing, prison issues

by | Nov 21, 2018 | Criminal Defense

With endorsers ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to President Trump, the First Step Act could be the most significant criminal justice reform effort in decades. But what would the proposed law actually do?

Make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for crack offenses

Mandatory minimum sentences passed in the 1980s treated crack cocaine much more harshly than powder cocaine — and African-Americans tended to use crack, while whites tended to use powder. The disparity in sentencing was originally 100 to 1.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) to address that disparity. However, crack was still punished by sentences 18 times longer than those for powder cocaine.

Over 12,000 defendants sentenced before the FSA were later allowed to petition for resentencing. However, about 2,600 were still subject to pre-FSA mandatory minimums. The First Step Act would allow them to petition for resentencing.

Address harsh, mandatory minimum sentences

Far too often, judges are required by statute to impose sentences far too harsh for the crime in question. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws take away judges’ discretion to impose a sentence they see as fair. Currently, judges are authorized to exempt nonviolent drug offenders with no criminal histories from unduly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The First Step Act would restore judges’ discretion in cases where the defendant has a limited criminal history.

The new law would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, along with the federal “three strikes” law. The three strikes law currently triggers a life sentence after three qualifying convictions. That would change to a 25-year sentence. These changes would not apply retroactively.

Reform prison abuses and improve reentry programs

A number of existing laws protect prisoners but have not been enforced. For example, prisoners are supposed to be placed in facilities that are within 500 miles of their families and homes, but they are routinely housed much farther away. Bureau of Prisons policy has banned the shackling of pregnant prisoners, but this still happens.

The new law would end the abuses mentioned above, require the Bureau of Prisons to match prisoners with the most appropriate education, training and rehabilitative services, and guarantee other rights. It would retroactively increase the maximum “good time credit” limit from 47 days to 54 days, which could result in the release of 4,000 prisoners.

It would also direct $375 million toward reentry programs; make it easier for outside groups to provide prison programming; allow prisoners to earn 10 days of half-way house or in-home supervision for every 30 days spent in rehabilitation; steer prisoners toward the least restrictive form of reentry supervision; and expand eligibility for the compassionate release program for elderly and terminally ill inmates.

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