Congress Passes The FIRST STEP Act; President Expected to Sign It

The FIRST STEP Act is legislation to reform the federal prison system. The bill will make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates, according to the Marshall Project.

The bill would take several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It would expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It would ease a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It would restrict the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences. All of these changes would lead to shorter prison sentences in the future.

The bill would increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change applies retroactively, which could allow some prisoners — as many as 4,000, according to supporters — to qualify for release the day that the bill goes into effect.

The bill would allow inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term. (There’s research showing that education programs do reduce recidivism.)

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