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Inside the First Step Act

W. Scott Cole

Posted on December 31, 2018 13:44

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The First Step Act has been wending its way through Congress for most of 2018. It is a true bipartisan piece of legislation that passed the House with a vote of 358 - 36. The Senate voted 87 - 12 in its favor and President Trump signed it into law on Dec. 21, 2018. It is the largest criminal justice reform bill to hit the books in years, but what is in it and what does it do?

The benefits of the First Step Act can be broken down into four sections. First, it makes the reduction of the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powdered cocaine retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the differences in sentencing, but it applied only to convictions occurring after 2010. By making it retroactive, the First Step Act will allow about 2,600 federal prisoners to apply to the courts for a sentence reduction.

Second, it curbs mandatory minimums by allowing judges more discretion to hand out sentences under the mandatory minimum guidelines for people with limited criminal histories. This will impact an estimated 2,000 people a year. It also lowers the mandatory minimum sentence for serious violent or major drug crimes from 20 to 15 years. Additionally, the “three strikes” rule now triggers a mandatory minimum of 25 years, instead of life. These mandatory minimum sentencing reductions are not retroactive.

Third, it enforces and expands what has already been written into law or Bureau of Prisons policy, including requiring the BOP to place inmates in prisons within 500 miles of family, allowing for more visitation.

It also requires the BOP to match inmates with appropriate rehabilitative programs, services, and training and gives inmates 54 days per year of good time credit, up from the current limit of 47. This is retroactive and could potentially free up to 4,000 inmates. Inmates can also earn credits of 10 days in halfway houses or in-home supervision for every 30 days they spend in rehabilitative programs, with no limit to how many credits they can earn.

Fourth, the First Step Act requires the BOP to follow prior Congressional mandates and its own written policies, many of which it has been ignoring. It calls for increased use of halfway houses and home confinement, and two reentry programs that the BOP has systematically been dismantling.

The law also calls for expanded use of the Compassionate Release Program for elderly and terminally ill inmates who pose no risk to society. At present, this program sees very little use, releasing very few of the thousands who apply every year.

There are two policies the BOP has had for years it can no longer ignore that can have a huge impact on women in prison. Pregnant women in labor can no longer be shackled. I know, this sounds like a no-brainer, but even though it has been BOP policy for years, women about to give birth have still been shackled to their hospital beds.

Women in prison still need feminine sanitary supplies and many make very little or no money. BOP policy says those supplies are free of charge, but they ignored this policy, too, and forced women to buy them. That practice has also now ended.

The First Step Act applies only to federal prisons, but most states take their cues from the feds, so these benefits will most likely be trickling down to the states in the next few years.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on December 31, 2018 13:44

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Source: Politico
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The Senate's criminal justice reform bill took a big, bipartisan step forward Monday night, but it still faces one big hurdle:...

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