Just the Facts

Five Facts on the First Step Act

By No Labels
December 19, 2018 | Blog

Tuesday evening the Senate voted 87-12 to pass a bipartisan criminal justice bill, the First Step Act. Looking towards the imminent House vote, here are Five Facts on the First Step Act and its intended effects if it becomes law.

The First Step Act would affect around 181,000 imprisoned people.

The First Step Act applies only to the 181,000 inmates in federal prisons. Almost two million people are in state and local prisons. If passed, the bill would take multiple steps to reduce the minimum sentences under federal law. Some of the other reforms include increasing judicial discretion during sentencing and increasing the role of “earned time credits,” which allow inmates to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement by participating in vocational and rehabilitative programs. These reforms aim to limit overcrowding in prisons, reduce the likelihood inmates will repeat committing crimes, and set the tone for continued reform in the future.

The act follows state-level reforms that have been introduced and passed since 2007.

While the First Step is a significant bipartisan win, it is not the first of its kind. Since 2007, more than half of the states in the U.S. have taken steps to reduce the size and cost of their correction systems, resulting in a 29% decrease in the imprisonment rate since 2008. Some of these state reforms include reclassifying drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, streamlining parole processes for low-risk offenders, and increasing re-entry programs and facilities. Multiple states including Florida, Louisiana and Colorado passed more criminal justice reform measures during the 2018 midterm election through state-wide ballots.

The bill before Congress would also allow some cases to be re-evaluated.

The First Step Act includes retroactive measures that allow offenders sentenced before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act to petition for re-evaluation of their cases. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act decreased sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. With the extension of the Fair Sentencing Act through the First Step Act, as many as 4,000 inmates currently incarcerated under these drug charges may be eligible for release, according to The Guardian.

The bill represents one of the most significant federal criminal justice reforms in decades.

The Senate voted 87-12 to approve the bill, enlisting the support of an unlikely group of cohorts. Sens. Chuck Grassley, (R-IA), Dick Durbin (D-Ill), Mike Lee (R-UT)( and Corey Booker D-NJ) led the push both for passage of the bill and the vote against amendments proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (AK) and John Kennedy (LA). The proposed amendment would have required the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims before release and track former offenders after their sentence is finished. Sen. Grassley called the bipartisan vote something that “happens once in a generation.” Sen. Booker also lauded the legislative achievement: “This is literally one of the reasons I came to the United States Senate, to get something like this done.”

The bill is expected to ultimately become law.

The House previously passed a less expansive version of the First Step Act earlier this year. It is expected to consider the bill this week. House Speaker Paul Ryan, (R-WI) tweeted Tuesday evening after the Senate vote: “Criminal justice reform is about giving more Americans a chance at redemption. The House looks forward to sending it to the president to become law.” With President Trump’s endorsement of the bill in November the bill is likely to become law.



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