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First Step Act: The Basics Of The Bipartisan Bill That Would Reform Federal Sentencing

It’s been years since the federal justice system has seen meaningful reform. Now, the lame-duck Congress stands on the brink of passing the most sweeping reforms since the Clinton era.

The First Step Act, a bill with broad bipartisan support, would reduce harsh penalties for nonviolent offenders and make rehabilitation a stronger, more effective priority for the federal prison system. It would also work to correct some of the racial disparities resulting from systemic injustice.

The bill focuses on two main areas: sentencing and prison reform.

How it would impact sentencing.

On the sentencing side, highlights of the bill include provisions for:

  • Reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes (some of which are currently set at life in prison)
  • Reducing “3-strike law” violations from life in prison to 25 years
  • Lightening up “stacking provisions” that impose harsh mandatory minimums when guns are present (but not used) during drug offenses or violent crimes
  • Equalizing sentences for crack and powder cocaine for pre-2010 offenders (which would reverse the disproportionate impact those disparities have had on African Americans)
  • Giving judges “safety valves” – that is, discretion to impose lighter sentences than the mandatory minimums – in certain drug cases and nonviolent offenses

These changes would impact approximately 3% of the nearly 200,000 inmates in federal prison.

How it would impact federal prisoners.

The prison reform aspects of the bill would affect a broader sweep of federal inmates. Those changes include:

  • Strengthening rehabilitation programs such as substance abuse treatment, counseling, vocational training and education
  • Incentivizing participation in those programs by offering credits that could be used to move up release dates for certain nonviolent offenders
  • Protecting the rights of women who give birth while incarcerated
  • Assessing offenders on an individual basis to offer more effective, personalized rehabilitation plans
  • Providing greater leniency for terminally ill prisoners

These reforms won’t impact state prisons, where the vast majority of our nation’s prison population resides. Still, if passed, the bill might inspire states to explore similar reforms.

The clock is ticking.

Like any piece of legislation, the bill has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. The scope of the “safety valve” provision is a source of contention among conservatives. And many on the side of reform argue that the bill doesn’t go far enough to address the root causes of crime – substance addiction, illiteracy, economic disparity, educational gaps, racial barriers and the like.

Still, it’s a start. And given that it’s backed by groups across the political spectrum – from the ACLU to the Koch brothers as well as numerous law enforcement agencies and faith groups – it may well represent the best chance we have at getting reforms passed before a divided Congress takes office in January.

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