Why The First Step Act Is A Big Deal For Criminal Justice

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The U.S. Senate just passed a bill referred to as the First Step Act, aimed at increasing the use of evidence-based recidivism reduction in Federal Prisons. In plain English, it means that prisons are going to have to look to use peer-reviewed research into programs that decrease the chances that inmates will end up back in prison after release. There’s a budget of about $75 million a year until 2023 to help implement it, along with the creation of a committee whose sole purpose is to advise the Attorney General and Bureau of Prisons on valid research into rehabilitating prisoners. If passed in the House, then President Trump has expressed he will sign the resulting bill into law.

There’s also some sentencing reform.
The bill restricts use of isolation on juvenile offenders, restraints on pregnant prisoners while they’re giving birth, and provisions to increase the number of sentences which require home confinement. The last part is especially important, as it would reduce prison costs in addition to letting prisoners maintain an income. One problem with our current prison system is that it’s difficult for prisoners to find gainful employment and build a new life after incarceration. This bill is a recognition of that reality.

Furthermore, there’s a change to three-strikes laws and how they affect sentencing. Under applicable convictions, three-strikes laws won’t carry a mandatory life sentence anymore. This also will reduce prison inmate populations.

Finally, the reforms will not affect violent offenses or other offenses involving violence of some sort. Thus, no rapist or murderer will become eligible for release from this bill. It also seems to exclude most sexual offenses from reforms, and it doesn’t change sex offender registration requirements.

No, the bill doesn’t change everything reformers want, but this is a HUGE change nonetheless.
For at least the past three decades, our nation has engaged in a fairly aggressive policy of incarceration for criminal offenses. So-called three-strikes laws became the norm in states and in national law, providing for enhanced penalties for repeat offenders. As a result, our prison population has increased dramatically.

Most of these prisoners are in state prison, as some critics of the law might point out. However, it is interesting to note that this bill requires reports on evidence-based recidivism reduction programs. One of the possible consequences is that states will have access to this information if they want it. It theoretically could get classified for some bizarre reason, but barring that, states would be able to model their own reforms to prison corrections based on empirical research.