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What Happened to the First Step Act?

W. Scott Cole

Posted on June 3, 2019 00:38

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I wrote about the First Step Act just before it became law. It was a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that President Trump signed into law in December, 2018. It promises major changes in sentencing, programs, and release from prison, but to this point, implementation seems to be a very bumpy road.

The First Step Act was lauded to be the biggest change in the criminal justice system in years. As usual, when any legislation comes into being, politics and governmental red tape has taken its toll on implementation.

The first road bump was the government shutdown. The people that would be needed to put the law into effect at the Department of Justice and at the White House were among those sent home. A deadline of January 21, 2019, to appoint an Independent Review Commission, passed by with no action.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not supportive of the Act, so did not give a high priority to its mandates, and after he left, there was no guidance from the Attorney General’s Office until William Barr was confirmed and sworn in. Fortunately, AG Barr is a friend of the Act, and seems to be fully committed to making it work.

The Department of Justice, as a whole, resisted the Act from the start, so advocates are watching very closely to be sure they do their part properly. Though they have been slow in acting to date, they seem to be doing what the law requires.

In late March, the Hudson Institute was selected to appoint the members of the Independent Review Committee, who will assist the Department of Justice and Attorney General in developing and implementing risk and needs assessment tools, and evidence based recidivism reduction programs.

The problem there is that the Hudson Institute not only was not active in advocating for the First Step Act, but they hosted a speech by Sen. Tom Cotton (R. Ark.), in which he said, “If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.” Senator Cotton was the leader of the group in Congress, most committed to defeating the First Step Act, while it was making its way through to becoming law.

Additionally, the Bureau of Prisons has yet to recalculate retroactive good time for inmates, which would benefit close to 4,000 people.

But, in spite of all that, there is good news. Under the First Step Act mandates, in the first six months of operation, the retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act, which was included in the First Step Act, has resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases. Newly issued compassionate release guidelines have resulted in 22 early releases for inmates who are terminally ill, and a proper tool for dyslexia screening has been identified.

It would appear that, in spite of opponents trying to starve it of funding and the usual government inefficiency, the Act is starting to make changes in how inmates are sentenced, how they serve their sentences, and when they are released.

Let’s hope the advancements keep coming as the law is further implemented, and that a Second Step Act is introduced soon. These reforms are long overdue.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on June 3, 2019 00:38

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Source: WTSP

It follows Congress passing the First Step Act to reform the criminal justice system.                

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