What Is the First Step Act?

Since 2017, the Trump Administration has been responsible for implementing many bold and controversial legislative changes. For all its benefits, the First Step Act is no exception. On December 21, 2018, President Trump enthusiastically signed a bill that provides new protections to women and juveniles in the federal prison system, eases punitive sentencing policies at the federal level, and introduces a new system that focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment. The New York Times claims that the First Step Act offers “the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.”

The First Act

The First Step Act was informed by former inmates and people who have loved ones currently incarcerated. For this reason, it is full of provisions that are intended to improve the lives of people serving their time.

A few major provisions of the First Step Act include:

  • The First Step Act focuses greatly on inmate rehabilitation. A new Risk and Needs Assessment system will be utilized to match people in prison to supportive programs and classes. People who are considered high-risk will have priority access to this programming. Inmates can earn 10 days of Earned Time Credit if they participate for 30 days. Even if inmates are excluded from cashing in credits, they can still benefit from the new system. The hope is that people can emerge from federal prisons ready to work and give back to their communities.
  • The compassionate release process has been improved to help inmates who are terminally ill or elderly.
  • This bill provides women with free feminine hygiene products and bans the shackling of anyone who is giving birth.
  • The Bureau of Prisons is now legally required to place inmates in facilities that are within 500 driving miles of their family members.
  • The First Step Act also includes new auditing and reporting requirements to track, report, and fix racial disparities in the system.
  • Nearly 3,000 people who are serving outdated sentences for old crack cocaine charges will be released from federal prisons across the country.
  • This bill eliminates mandatory life sentences for Third Strike drug offenders.
  • The First Step Act fixes a calculation that short-changed Good Time Credits by 7 days. Now, inmates can get the full 54 days of credit each year, as Congress originally intended. This change is retroactive, so up to 4,000 prisoners may qualify for an early release as soon as the bill goes into effect.

While many consider the First Step Act to be a modest approach to prison reform, it’s still initiating several necessary changes to the criminal justice system that shouldn’t be overlooked or disregarded.

The Debate

Even so, it’s understandable why many critics have their concerns. At present, this bill only impacts the federal system, meaning that only 181,000 of America’s 2.1 million inmates can benefit from these changes. Also, the system uses an algorithm to determine who can cash in time credits. Historically, new and revised algorithms have perpetuated the racial and class disparities that are prevalent in the criminal justice system. The bill already excludes certain inmates from earning credits, including undocumented immigrants.

If you have any questions or concerns about the First Step Act, contact the Riverside County criminal defense Attorney at Hanson, Gorian, Bradford & Hanich today. Call (951) 687-6003 for a free consultation.


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