Update: The First Step Act also passed the House of Representatives and was signed into by law by President Donald Trump.
The U.S. Senate passed the First Step Act introduced by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on Thursday evening by a bipartisan vote of 87 to 12. The bill will go to the U.S. House of Representatives. If Congress passes the bill, President Donald Trump is expected to sign the long-awaited and long-overdue criminal justice reform bill into law.
What does this bill do? Here are some key facets to the bill:
- It reduces the mandatory minimum for prior drug offenses. Current federal law could face 25 years for offenders with three prior drug convictions. The “three strikes” law offenders in that position would face a life sentence.
- It shortens the mandatory minimums for certain crimes. For instance, serious drug felonies that used to carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years has been reduced to 15. The shortened sentences are not retroactive.
- It gives federal judges more latitude for sentencing for first-time non-violent drug offenders and non-violent offenders with limited criminal histories.
- 2600 federal prisoners convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010 could retroactively benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and the powdered form of the drug. This sentencing disparity has been a glaring example of racial imbalance since crack cocaine was prevalent in black neighborhoods in the 1980s, those convicted were receiving longer sentences than white power cocaine users which is nonsensical.
- The First Step Act includes reforms that require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to follow existing rules and policies such as placing prisoners in facilities within 500 driving miles of their families or homes, requiring the Bureau of Prisons to match people with appropriate rehabilitative services, education and training opportunities, and prohibiting the shackling of pregnant prisoners.
- The bill also incentivizes prisoners to participate in rehabilitative programs with the goal of reducing recidivism. The bill offers prisoners to earn 10 days in half-way houses or in-home supervision for every 30 days they spend in a program. The program can be provided by a non-profit, faith-based organization, higher education institutions, and other private entities. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment that passed by voice vote that explicitly excludes violent felons from taking advantage of this.
- Credit for good behavior: Prisoners could get seven days of credit for good behavior each year of his or her sentence with this bill. Those credits would be deducted from his or her sentence to allow for early release. Again, violent felons are excluded from this opportunity.
- It expands eligibility for compassionate release of elderly and terminally ill inmates.
Having worked with juvenile and adult offenders in the past I can tell you that this bill is long overdue. Does it go far enough in reforming sentencing for non-violent drug offenses? No, more work needs to be done.
Recidivism rates are too high, prison often takes non-violent offenders and turns them into hardened criminals. This provides an opportunity for restoration, for rehabilitation, and for successful re-entry back into the community.
This will, in turn, reduce crime and save taxpayers money in the long run.