The First Step Act and the Prison Population
A 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that the prison population in the U.S. had increased significantly from 1980 to 2010 in all 50 states. Tougher crime laws have not lessened the U.S. prison population or its recidivism rates. The First Step Act, which Congress enacted in late 2018, is designed to reduce the population of nonviolent prisoners and is the most substantial criminal justice reform in at least 25 years.
About the First Step Act
The First Step Act is federal legislation that reforms the federal prison system. The core goal is to relax punitive sentencing, give judges greater leeway and provide avenues by which inmates can rejoin the economy in a productive and sustainable manner. The federal prison system accounts for just 10 percent of the country’s prison population. This number is not insignificant, and while the Act cannot mandate reform at the state level, proponents hope that it will set a standard for reform that is already underway throughout the country. Effective reform in the last decade has taken many different shapes, including:
- Reduced prison sentences
- Legalization of marijuana
- Defelonization of drug offenses
- Greater leniency for first-time offenders
- Greater leniency for nonviolent offenders
Expanding the Safety Valve
A safety valve was created for federal judges by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This crime bill defined five criteria. If a person, based on his or her criminal history, met that criteria, then the judge had sentencing leeway within the law. The goal here is to allow for judicial discretion on a case-by-case basis. The First Step Act broadens the criteria for first-time and nonviolent offenders. This gives a judge greater freedom to not have to hand down mandatory minimum sentences. It also eases the three strikes rule, which can require a 25-year prison sentence regardless of the context. Finally, this legislation prevents federal prosecutors from stacking charges from a single criminal incident to achieve longer sentences.
Good Time and Earned Time Credits
Inmates are currently allowed to earn up to 47 days per year if they avoid a disciplinary record. These good time credits have been expanded by the Act up to 54 days a year. This particular change was retroactive, which meant that some prisoners were freed as soon as the bill was enacted. The First Step Act also introduced earned time credits, which inmates can acquire by participating in various rehabilitation and vocational programs. The goal is to reduce the prison population by focusing on those people making the effort to obtain the skills they need to not backslide once they’re released. These programs include:
- Job training
- Wellness rehabilitation
- Community reintegration
- Personal and social counseling
Not Every Inmate Is Eligible
While all inmates have the right to earn good time credits and earned time credits, not all of them have the right to cash them in. Any inmate deemed a higher risk will generally be ineligible, and that status is often applied to a person who has committed a high-level crime, such as murder or kidnapping. Undocumented immigrants who are incarcerated are also ineligible. The criteria are not hard and fast overall, however. No one person is making these decisions directly. Rather, an algorithm determines eligibility based on a wide range of factors.
The Algorithm Remains a Polarizing Concept
The algorithm is a work in process. Even many proponents of the bill were not happy with the algorithm as is but conceded due to how impactful the legislature would be regardless. Still, many argue that the algorithm is at risk of perpetuating the class and racial inequalities that are already entrenched in the system.
The Local Representation You Need Today
At Kusturiss Law, we focus on criminal defense law. Our law firm has taken on many different defense cases involving clients who were facing first-time charges as well as those charged and even convicted previously. Let us help you. Contact our law firm to schedule a free in-person consultation. You can contact us online or call our office in Media, Pennsylvania, at (610) 565-0240.