By: Wadad Barakat, Senior Articles Editor, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

In December 2018, the Senate finally passed and President Trump signed “The First Step Act.”  This a major win in order to end mass incarceration, making it the first major reduction to federal drug sentences.  The First Step Act includes provisions for meaningful sentencing reform, which would reduce the number and amount of people in federal prison.

This major win for the movement to end mass incarceration is the starting point of any serious legislation for criminal justice reform. It will affect only the federal system, which has risen by more than 700 percent since 1980.  The First Step Act shortens mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. It also eases a federal “three strikes” rule, which currently imposes a life sentence for three or more convictions and issues a twenty-five year sentence instead.  Most importantly, it would give judges more discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums when sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.

Federal mandatory minimum sentences can become unnecessarily harsh.  Specifically, more than two-thirds of federal prisoners serving a life sentence or a virtual life sentence have been convicted of non-violent crimes.  However, research shows that long prison sentences are often ineffective.  One Brennan Center study found that overly harsh sentences have done little to reduce crime.  In fact, it has been found that longer prison sentences can actually increase the likelihood of people returning to prison.

The First Step Act invests in a package of incentives and new programs for the purpose to improve prison conditions and better prepare low-risk prisoners for re-entry into their communities.  If possible, The Bureau of Prisons would be required to place prisoners in facilities close to their homes in order to aid inmates have an easier transition from prison to home. Further, The First Step Act will increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who do not have a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to forty-seven days per year incarcerated.  The Act increases this number to fifty-four, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they are incarcerated.  Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but also hope that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released.

Thanks to The First Step Act, thousands of inmates will be eligible for immediate sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs.  “It’s imperative that this first step not be the only step,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “Now we must focus our efforts on bigger and bolder widespread reforms that will make our system more fair and more humane.  We know better, and we must do better.”