Interpreting the Groundbreaking “First Step Act”

Feb 14, 2019 | News

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In late 2018, Congress voted to pass substantial criminal justice reform measures, the first of its kind in several decades. Known as the First Step Act, the prison reform bill has several components that are aimed to increase early release and living conditions for those incarcerated. In particular, the act is expected to reduce recidivism rates, or the regression of criminals to commit additional crimes once being released from prison. In addition, the act aimed to reduce the total prison population with early release programs, providing classes for job training and aimed to move individuals closer to their family during incarceration. Here are the highlights of the First Step Act, and how it may impact a current or future criminal conviction:


First Step Act Passage

Introduced as a bipartisan bill to the Senate, the First Step Act was sponsored by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The measure was passed and signed into law in December 2018 by President Trump. As its name suggests, is a first step in reforming the prison system that has long been criticized for both cost and mass incarceration. Critics of the current system have long called for substantial reform of criminal law because of the high rate of incarceration in the United States, far outpacing other developed nations.


Major Changes

The measure implemented several programs, including reducing the current prison population by giving retroactive credits for time served with good behavior. This affected approximately 9,000 prisoners in the first year. In addition, the First Step Act gives additional incentives for good behavior and participation in programs. This allows prisoners to partake in additional phone and visitation privileges, helping the person remain connected to their family during incarceration. Lastly, another significant change is to what is called “compassionate release,” which lowers the age requirement for elderly release petition.

In addition, the act aims to remedy the disparity in crack vs. powder cocaine sentences. This reduces the disproportional impact on the African American community when the two drugs are chemically similar, but use and sentencing for African Americans of crack cocaine are more prevalent in the population. For those sentenced for crack cocaine violations before 2010, prisoners can now petition for their case to be re-tried to reflect current standards.

As new inmates enter the criminal justice system and additional prisoners become eligible for early releases, the program will have wide sweeping effects on the total prison population for years to come. However, many lawmakers argue that this is just one step in a much larger criminal justice reform, which has gained some bipartisan support in a politically divided environment.


Counsel At All Stages

If someone you know has been crime and may qualify for benefits or release under the First Step Act, it’s important to consult an experienced lawyer. As new legislation is passed, the retroactive nature of the act may impact time served. In addition, the new act impacts future sentencing, particularly for non-violent drug offenses.