The First Step Act, passed in December 2018, stands as a landmark legislation in the U.S. criminal justice system, as it aims to rectify many longstanding issues associated with excessive sentencing and prison overcrowding. This bipartisan act represents a significant shift in the criminal justice policy landscape, providing hope for many who have long sought a more fair and equitable system.
The First Step Act is aptly named, indicating that it is just the beginning of a more comprehensive transformation. It implements several measures, both on the sentencing and prison reform fronts. The act retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This has had the potential to positively affect thousands of inmates, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, who have historically borne the brunt of these disparities.
Changes to three-strikes laws
It also softens the ‘three-strikes’ law, reducing the life sentence for three or more convictions to a 25-year sentence. It also expands the ‘safety valve’ provision in federal sentencing laws, allowing judges more discretion to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences in some cases. This is a significant move toward a more individualized justice approach.
On the prison reform side, it aims to prepare inmates for a successful reentry into society. It incentivizes inmates with the possibility of earning ‘good time credits’ to reduce their sentence length, contingent on their participation in programs aimed at reducing recidivism. These programs, which include vocational training, education and drug treatment, are designed to equip inmates with vital skills to help them reintegrate into society upon release.
Critics argue that the First Step Act, while a positive move, only scratches the surface of the deep-seated issues plaguing the U.S. criminal justice system. It primarily affects the federal prison population, which comprises a relatively small fraction of the total incarcerated population in the U.S., so its reach is limited. However, it has established a precedent that could potentially inspire more substantial state-level reforms.
The First Step Act marks a significant step forward in criminal justice reform in the U.S. While it is not a cure-all, it signifies a much-needed shift towards a more humane and rehabilitative approach to criminal justice, one that recognizes the importance of second chances and the potential for transformation. As the name suggests, it is merely the first step on the path to more comprehensive reform.