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The First Step Act

President Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act on December 21, 2018. Also known as the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act, the law enables thousands of federal prison inmates to earn an earlier release and could reduce more prison sentences for years to come.

Keep in mind, the law only impacts the federal system, which currently holds approximately 181,000 inmates. By contrast, the U.S. prison system holds 2.1 million inmates.

The following are the main provisions of the First Step Act:

  • Reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are retroactive – The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the substantial disparity in penalties between powdered and crack cocaine. Since crack was prevalent in many African American neighborhoods in the 1980s, the crack penalty affected the black community much more than white individuals who use powder cocaine. The law affects nearly 2,600 federal prisoners, who must petition for release and go to court to reduce their sentence.
  • Reduces mandatory minimums – The First Step Act allows federal judges to waive mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders with limited criminal history or none whatsoever. Estimates say that nearly 2,000 each year would be able to avoid mandatory sentences. Additionally, the law eases a “three strikes” rule, so those with three or more convictions would automatically serve 25 years, rather than life.
  • Increases “good time credits” – Instead of getting credits of up to 47 days each year in prison, the First Step Act increases the limit to 54. This enables inmates who demonstrate consistent good behavior to reduce their prison sentences by one more week for each year in prison. Since the change is retroactive, approximately 4,000 inmates are eligible for earlier release soon.
  • Makes “earned time credits” available – The law allows inmates to participate in more rehabilitative and vocational programs to earn credits toward early release to home confinement or halfway houses. Not only does this address how prisons are overcrowded, but the hope is that these programs will make it less likely an inmate will commit another offense upon release.

Keep in mind, not all federal inmates will benefit from the new law. An algorithm will be used to initially figure out who can use earned time credits—which excludes higher risk inmates and undocumented immigrants from cashing in.

However, these algorithms can be prone to racial and class bias in the criminal justice system. For example, an algorithm may overlook that black and poor individuals are more likely to be imprisoned for offenses even though they’re not more likely to commit such crimes.

For more information about the new law, contact the Law Office of David R. Fischer today.