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The First Step Act - What Is It And How Does It Affect The Justice System?

Updated: Mar 29

The First Step Act is a criminal justice law designed to remedy some of the systemic issues in the American federal prison system. This bipartisan bill was passed in 2018 after nearly a decade without any criminal justice reform at the federal level. It’s been over two years since the First Step Act has been signed into law, and although it’s had some positive impact, there are many other issues legislators still need to address.



What Reforms are Included in the First Step Act ?


The First Step Act contains a number of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and improving conditions at federal prisons in the United States. One of the provisions of the bill provides certain benefits for nonviolent offenders who complete recidivism reduction programs and maintain good behavior. These incentives can potentially shorten someone’s sentence by earning what is known as “good-time credits.” Other provisions in the Act include:


Curbing Mandatory Minimums

The First Step Act provides more opportunity for flexibility regarding mandatory minimum sentences, allowing someone to be sentenced based on character and circumstances rather than only on guidelines forced on the courts. The bill also included several improvements to sentencing laws, particularly for drug offenses, The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was made retroactive, enabling those serving outdated drug-related sentences to become eligible for release. This provision will affect several thousand people per year and will reduce mandatory minimums from 20 to 15 years for offenses involving a large quantity of drugs. It will also reduce the “three strikes” federal law from life to 25 years. Unfortunately, however, these adjustments will not be retroactive.


Placing Prisoners in Facilities Close to Home

There is now a requirement for the Bureau of Prisons to place prisoners in a facility as close to their home as possible. When feasible, a person should be placed within 500 driving miles of their primary residence. This facilitates family visitation and helps promote a smoother transition upon release.


Expansion of Women’s Rights

There are two provisions that specifically target issues related to women. Feminine hygiene products are now provided free, and the use of restraints on pregnant women and those in postpartum recovery is now prohibited. Unfortunately, this legislation only applies to women serving time in federal penitentiaries and does not apply to state prisons and jails, where the majority of women are incarcerated.




An Increase in Good Time Credit

Incarcerated individuals now receive 54 days of good time credit per year as compared with 47 days previously. Fortunately, this change has been made retroactive for some, resulting in an earlier release date for many people.


Increase in Funding for Job Training and Educational Programs

Over time, there will be an increase in funding for programs geared toward teaching life skills, trade skills, and other programs with “real world” applications. The First Step Act will make it easier for churches and other service providers to visit correctional facilities to administer these educational programs.


Greater Use of Halfway Houses and the Home Confinement System

Incarcerated individuals earn 10 days of halfway house time for every 30 days of approved programming and/or rehabilitation they complete. This allows for a more structured way to work towards halfway house time. The First Step Act also expands the eligibility for compassionate release. For example, elderly people or those who are terminally ill have a better chance of getting released from prison early. If someone has served two-thirds of his or her term of imprisonment and is over 65 years old, they can request an early release. Generally, an elderly offender will serve the remainder of their sentence on home confinement.


A Small Step in the Right Direction


There were some immediate benefits from the passage of the First Step Act. Over 3,000 people have been released from federal prison as a result of the increase in good time credits. The bill also makes sentences much shorter for many people currently in federal prison in the years to come. In addition, conditions in some prisons have started to improve.

However, there have also been many instances where the Bureau of Prisons has interpreted incentive restrictions very broadly, making it difficult for some individuals to qualify. At this time, additional congressional oversight is needed to ensure that the First Step Act is effectively protecting people who need it most.


The First Step Act has played an important role in focusing attention on the broader issues of mass incarceration, while helping reduce recidivism and improving conditions within prisons. There is still a long way to go, however, to get to the point when the criminal justice system in the United States will be considered more equitable and humane by any reasonable standard.


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