Understanding the First Step Act

On December 20th, 2018, inmates across the country had a reason to smile as President Trump passed the first major reform to the criminal justice system in over a decade. Known as the First Step Act, this new law set out to reform sentencing and make it easier for inmates to transition back into society. But what exactly is the First Step Act and how does it affect the prison system? Here is everything you need to know. 

The First Step Act was designed to gradually change the criminal justice system and discourage extremely punitive sentences by the federal government. It only affects the federal system, which accounts for approximately 181,000 of the 2.1 million inmates in the US. The law basically gives certain prisoners the chance to get out earlier and could reduce several more sentences in the future. 

The law has come a long way since its first version was originally introduced and passed by the House of Representatives. This first version of the legislation was not initially intended to ease prison sentences, although it did promote the introduction of rehabilitation programs that would effectively reduce how long inmates stayed in prison. However, certain Senate Democrats and reformers were concerned about the law’s limited scope and were able to incorporate changes that would progressively improve prison sentences. 

The First Step Act: 

  • Reflects on the reforms made by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the gap between powder cocaine and crack cocaine federal sentences. The Marshall Project estimates that about 2,600 inmates will be affected. 
  • Looks to reduce mandatory minimum sentences by expanding the “safety valve” that can be used by judges to avoid giving out mandatory minimum sentences. Additionally, people who have “three strikes” or more and would have automatically gotten a life sentence, are now subject only to 25 years. It also limits the “stacking” of minimum mandatory sentences for offenders who use firearms in the commission of a felony.
  • Provides an increase in “good time credits” – from the previous 47 days per year for avoiding a disciplinary record to 54 days. This, in turn, gives well-behaved inmates the opportunity to reduce their prison sentences by an extra week for every year they are incarcerated. 
  • Allows prisoners to participate in more vocational and rehabilitation programs and earn additional “good time credits.” This will go a long way towards mitigating prison overcrowding, as well as reducing the percentage of released inmates who re-offend.

It is important to note that the First Step Act does not benefit all inmates. The system uses an algorithm to determine which prisoners can redeem earned time credits. However, there have been concerns over the tendency of the algorithms to perpetuate class and racial disparities. For instance, certain inmates, such as high-level offenders and undocumented immigrants, are excluded from earning time credits. Keep in mind that although the First Step Act has been the law for almost a year now, several of its provisions are still in the process of being created and implemented. Nevertheless, it represents a significant step in revolutionizing the United States Prison System and recognizing that long-term incarceration of individuals does more harm to society than good.  

If you are facing federal criminal charges, the best way to protect yourself is to consult a criminal defense attorney. Indeed, there are several things that could go wrong in a federal investigation, and you might end up serving a long sentence for a crime you did not commit. For any legal assistance, please contact Barry M. Wax at (305) 373-4400.

Law Offices of Barry M. Wax