What Is the First Step Act?

Signed into law on December 21, 2018, the First Step Act aims to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the United States. Currently, there are about 2.2 million people in jails and prisons throughout the country. The First Step Act only applies to federal prisons, which hold around 181,000 people.

Under the First Step Act, many people will be able to obtain an early release from prison. Additionally, the new law could also result in shorter sentences for individuals in the future. The Act represents one of the most significant changes in criminal justice reform over the past few years.

Main Provisions of the First Step Act

The First Step Act could result in several changes in the way people are sentenced, as well as how early they’re eligible for release from prison. Here are some of the key provisions from the new law.

  • Ease Mandatory Minimum Sentences – One of the main parts of the Act is the way it changes mandatory minimum prison sentences as they’re currently set forth under federal law. For example, the Act makes the three strikes rule more lenient by eliminating an automatic life sentence in favor of a prison sentence of 25 years for people with three consecutive convictions for certain crimes. This provision could also stop prosecutors from stacking certain kinds of charges in an attempt to impose a lengthier prison sentence.
  • Make the Fair Sentencing Act Retroactive – The First Step Act also makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. This change could result in reduced sentences for about 2,600 people currently serving time in federal prison for drug offenses.
  • Allow More Credits for Good Behavior – The Act also increases the number of good time credits a federal prisoner can earn for good behavior. Under current law, inmates can receive a maximum of 47 days taken off their sentence each year for good behavior. The First Step Act increases the number of days to 54. Additionally, this provision is retroactive, which means up to 4,000 inmates could be released from prison right away.
  • Add More Earned Time Credits – Under the new law, prisoners are also eligible for additional earned time credits, which let them earn an early release to home confinement or a halfway house if they participate in vocational and rehabilitation programs.
  • Place Prisoners Closer to Family – The Act also aims to locate prisoners closer to their families.

Although the First Step Act makes many changes to criminal justice law, the new provisions won’t benefit everyone.

Because the law uses an algorithm to determine eligibility, some criminal justice reform advocates say it can lead to unfair results. For example, they point out that an algorithm might exclude an individual for early release because of the person’s past crime record, when research shows that individuals from poor areas are more likely to have a criminal record due to economic hardship.

Will the First Step Affect State Prisoners?

The First Step Act has no effect on people incarcerated in state prisons or local jails. Rather, the new law only applies to inmates in federal prisons. Because of this, some criminal justice reformers say the law doesn’t go far enough in attempting to change the criminal justice system.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 87 percent of all inmates are in state prisons or local jails, which means the First Step Act won’t impact those inmates in any way.

Reformers also say that the new law doesn’t do enough to address the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, which is a growing problem. In fact, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million prisoners.

According to CNN, “If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be among the country’s 10 largest. More people are behind bars in America than there are living in major cities such as Philadelphia or Dallas.”

If the millions of prisoners across the country were a city in the United States, the city would be the fifth largest in the entire country, behind New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Mass incarceration takes people out of society, but it also costs society a great deal of money. In the U.S., the prison industry costs taxpayers $80 billion every year. By contrast, the discretionary budget for the Department of Education is just $68 billion.

However, other experts say the First Step Act is just that — an initial step in the right direction. While it might not reduce the country’s prison population a great deal, it will allow many individuals to obtain an early release.

The new law will also give prisoners an incentive to follow the rules for good behavior, and will encourage them to participate in vocational and rehabilitation programs.  

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime or want to see if the First Step Act applies in your case, it’s important to speak with a federal criminal defense lawyer like John Helms today.


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