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Inmates have won reduced sentences under First Step Act

By Dayne Phillips

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With an ever-growing prison population within the United States, many lawmakers are beginning to push legislation to improve the standards for release within the criminal justice system. As substances are legalized, such as marijuana in most states across the country, and other crimes are reevaluated for the sentence that must be served, lawmakers are now pursuing laws that would improve the lives of the millions of Americans serving sentences in jails and prisons.

The First Step Act, or FSA, is one of these pieces of legislation. The FSA aims to implement a broad range of changes to America’s prison system in hopes of reducing recidivism and improving inmate reintegration into society. Since President Donald Trump signed this act into law in 2018, it appears that court orders have reduced more than 2,400 prison sentences. Additionally, it also appears that more than 3,000 inmates have been released on good behavior and more than 120 terminally ill inmates have received compassionate releases.

While early releases are one of the FSA’s most visible reforms, the law also includes many more provisions that aim at better outcomes for the criminal justice system from the perspective of people who were recently released from prison.  For example, the act requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, to house inmates as close to their homes as possible. It also forbids the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, orders the BOP to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products, and bans solitary confinement for juvenile inmates.

The FSA also initiates several sentencing reforms to ease the strain on both the people and the prison systems within the country. It reduces mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers, causing those with no prior conviction to no longer face up to life imprisonment. The act also works to address the racial disparities in crack cocaine sentences, allowing inmates with crack-related convictions to petition for reduced prison time.

Although the First Step Act received bipartisan support in Congress, it is not without its critics. One controversial provision within the FSA requires the Justice Department to develop a mathematical tool to address an inmate’s risk of reconviction. The Justice Department asked the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, to choose the team that would develop the tool, raising fears from some that it might reflect harsher philosophies and reinforce racial biases that some argue already run rampant within the justice system.

The fact that thousands of inmates have seen their sentences commuted under the First Step Act makes it clear  that the law is having a positive impact on thousands of prisoners and their families. However, there is no way to know how much the Justice Department has influenced its outcome outside of the act itself.

Criminal rights advocates are pushing for Congress to build additional reforms on top of the FSA to continue with the momentum that this law has started. A proposal currently in the pipeline within Congress would make it easier for convicted felons to apply for federal jobs, and another would allow prisoners to apply for Pell Grants to pursue education once released.

While there is much progress to be celebrated with the FSA, advocates continue to argue that there is much more to do.  Financial reforms are a likely target of future actions, as many believe that an inmate’s inability to pay fees, fines, and cash bail often becomes an excuse to strip them of their rights. There is also discussion of how to proceed with marijuana convictions in states that recently decriminalized or legalized the substance.

Now, it seems, there is a push for justice reform that many feel is long overdue. With states across the country adopting their own legislation in addition to the First Step Act, criminal rights activists are excited to see the much-needed changes take place to improve the lives of millions of people within the current justice system.

Dayne Phillips is a criminal defense attorney with Price Benowitz LLP.