Prison reform is a major issue that has somewhat flown under the radar in the past year. The various immigration battles and collusion investigations have maintained the spotlight.
However, seemingly while no one was looking, the government has worked together to create a comprehensive federal prison reform bill designed to correct some of the mistakes of the past. As of December 21, 2018, the bill was signed into law by the President.
First Step Act
First and foremost, it is important to point out that someone took the time to name this bill the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person act so that the acronym would spell out first step. While this isn’t an important aspect of the legislation, I just personally find it hilarious.
What It Entails
One of the biggest changes the First Step Act seeks to enact is to ease mandatory minimums. Previously, the three strike rule made it so that three federal felony convictions resulted in life in prison. Instead, this new law will make the third strike 25 years.
The law is also designed to reward well-behaved prisoners by raising the cap on the number of days they can cut off their sentence due to good behavior. In fact, because this change is retroactive, somewhere around 4,000 prisoners qualify for release the day the law goes into effect.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the heart of the legislation is to tone down punishment for non-violent offensive, most notably drug convictions. It seeks to promote rehabilitation in place of arbitrary punishment in the hopes that it will cut down on recidivism.
Unsurprisingly, there are criticisms on both sides of the aisle. Some believe it goes too far to cater to criminals. Others say it doesn’t go far enough to repair an unjust system.
A major complaint is that these changes only affect federal prisons. The US has far and away the most incarcerated citizens; federal prisoners make up only a small percentage of that. State prisons would remain the same and they are the ones most in need of reform.
Another complaint is that these reforms treat the branch problem of incarceration instead of the root problem of inconsistent sentencing. To fix this problem, provisions were added to make sentencing of powder cocaine and crack cocaine convictions more equal. Previously, crack cocaine was sentenced more harshly. Crack cocaine disproportionately affected lower-income areas.
On the flip side, some argued that it would be smarter to keep criminals off the streets so they can’t commit crimes instead of trying to get them not to of their own volition. Also, opponents noted that many drug offenders had violent crime convictions as well, making the whole thing an exercise in futility.
While a lot of these changes are net positives for prisoners, the job is far from over. As the obnoxious name suggests, this is just a first step in fixing a systemic problem. It will be interesting to see where things go from here. With everything else going on at the moment, it could be quite some time before someone has to come up with an acronym for the Next Step Act.