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What’s Really in the First Step Act?

Updated: Nov 7


The First Step Act is a criminal justice reform bill that was signed into law by President Trump in December 2018. The law aims to make the federal justice system fairer and more focused on rehabilitation. It has two main components: sentencing reform and prison reform. Source

The sentencing reform components of the First Step Act shorten federal prison sentences and give people additional chances to avoid mandatory minimum penalties by expanding a “safety valve” that allows a judge to impose a sentence lower than the statutory minimum in some cases. Source

These parts of the First Step Act are almost automatic: once the act was signed, judges immediately began sentencing people to shorter prison terms in cases that came before them. Similarly, people in federal prison for pre-2010 crack cocaine offenses immediately became eligible to apply for resentencing to a shorter prison term. Source

The law’s prison reform elements are designed to improve conditions in federal prison in two ways. One is by curbing inhumane practices, such as eliminating the use of restraints on pregnant women and encouraging placing people in prisons that are closer to their families. Source

The other is by reorienting prisons around rehabilitation rather than punishment. Successfully expanding rehabilitative programming in federal prison will require significant follow-through from Congress and the Department of Justice. Source

While much of the law is operating as intended, a secret change is keeping more people in federal prison during the pandemic. The way the Justice Department has been handling prisoner releases during the coronavirus pandemic gives some insight into what’s going wrong. Source

Hailed by supporters as a pivotal moment in the movement to create a more fair justice system, endorsed by an unlikely alliance that includes President Donald Trump and the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Step Act is a bundle of compromises. As it makes its way through Congress it faces resistance from some Republicans who regard it as a menace to public safety and from some Democrats who view it as more cosmetic than consequential.

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