The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act or FIRST STEP Act reforms the federal prison system and seeks to reduce recidivism.  The act was signed by President Donald Trump on December 21, 2018.   The Act shall, among many provisions: allow for employees to store their firearms securely at federal prisons; restrict the use of restraints on pregnant women; expand compassionate release for terminally ill patients; place prisoners closer to family in some cases; authorize new markets for Federal Prison Industries; mandate de-escalation training for correctional officers and employees; and improve feminine hygiene in prison.

The major provisions of the First Step Act, as it stands now:

  • The Act makes retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level.
  • The Act takes several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It gives more discretion to judges in handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It eases a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, do not automatically get 25 years instead of life.   It restricts the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences. All of these changes would lead to shorter prison sentences in the future.
  • The Act increases “good time credits” that inmates can earn. It allows credits for participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. These credits will allow inmates to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term.

Not every inmate will benefit from the changes. The system will use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits, with inmates deemed higher risk excluded from cashing in, although not from earning the credits. The Act also excludes certain inmates from earning credits, such as undocumented immigrants and people who are convicted of high-level offenses.

Nothing in the Act is groundbreaking.  That is one reason the Act is dubbed a “first step.” Still, the Act starts to chip away at criminal justice reform at the federal level, which is a small part of the criminal justice system.  It is important to understand that almost all police work is done at the local and state level. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in America, only around 50 or so are federal agencies.

By and large, criminal justice reform will fall to the local and state governments.  Many have already passed the kinds of sentencing reforms that the federal system has struggled to enact. 

This is not to downplay the Act but it’s important to put its full impact on mass incarceration in a broader context