1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

The First Step Act Passed: What’s in it?

By Allison Lee, December 20, 2018


The FIRST STEP Act (S. 756) is similar to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill FCNL has supported for a number of years. It will bring more fairness to our criminal justice system through the reductions of mandatory minimum sentencing, and will aid reentry through recidivism reduction programs.

If it becomes law, this legislation will help thousands of people. The bill is an important, positive step towards addressing mass incarceration, but it is not perfect. FCNL supports the passage of the FIRST STEP Act and will continue the work to build on these reforms.

Positive Reforms in the FIRST STEP Act

Sentencing Reform Provisions – The First Step Act reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses – a significant step towards addressing over-sentencing.

Fair Sentencing Act Retroactivity – Retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced racist sentencing disparities for possession of crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine.

Safety Valve Expansion – Allow federal judges more judicial flexibility and discretion to reduce unfair sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Second Chance Act Reauthorization – Reauthorizes the Second Chance Act, which provides grant funding for drug treatment, vocational training, and other re-entry programs. It also includes more robust oversight and evaluation measures for these program grants.

Recidivism Reduction Programs – Expands access and provides incentives for incarcerated individuals to participate in evidence-based programming designed to reduce recidivism.

Among other provisions, the bill will also:

  • End federal juvenile solitary confinement.
  • Enable the use of good time credits for early release into a halfway house or other form of pre-release custody.
  • Eliminate the shackling of pregnant women in prison.
  • Provide greater access to education and substance abuse treatment.

Where the FIRST STEP Act Falls Short

Reduction of Federal Criminal Sentencing Applied Prospectively – The FIRST STEP Act fails to apply some sentencing reduction provisions retroactively. This means that thousands of people currently in prison will be excluded from this possibility. FCNL believes all of the bill’s sentencing reform provisions should be applied retroactively.

Risk Assessment Tool Disparity Concerns – The bill relies heavily on risk assessment tools, which could be used to determine release and prison program eligibility. These tools rely on racially biased factors to determine program eligibility, thereby disproportionately increasing and exacerbating racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The inclusion of an independent review committee helps mitigate these concerns, but it does not alleviate them.

Expansion of Electronic Monitoring – Increased reliance on electronic monitoring raises concerns that people could be forced to pay hundreds of dollars a month to wear a monitoring device that will limit their movement, making it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, visit family, and successfully transition back into society.

Summary

We applaud the committed bipartisan work of Congress to pass criminal justice reform. In particular, Sens. Chuck Grassley (IA) and Dick Durbin (IL) have been champions, working with their colleagues to get this bill across the finish line. More importantly, we thank everyone who has made phone calls, written letters, met with their legislators, and submitted newspaper op-eds on this issue. Grassroots support made this a priority in a polarized Congress.

The FIRST STEP Act will not solve our country’s mass incarceration problem, but as its name suggests, it is a first step towards addressing many of our criminal justice challenges. We hope that Congress will continue this work by addressing the deficiencies of this bill and working towards making our criminal justice system more restorative, and less retributive.

Allison Lee

  • Program Assistant, Domestic Policy

Allison Lee works alongside José Woss on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. Her primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research. She has always been very passionate about dismantling systems that promote racial disparities.