On Tuesday, December 18, 2018 the US Senate passed the First Step Act bill with a vote of 87-12. This bill is a criminal justice reform that looks to make sweeping changes to the prison system. “The FIRST STEP Act (S. 2795), introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI) and Sen. John Cornyn (R – TX), will ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside.”
The current system is criticized for failing released prisoners and not allowing them to have opportunities to move past their mistakes. This bill looks to revert some of the federal policies set in place in the ’80s and ‘90s that greatly impacted African-Americans and minor crime offenders. The reforms will look to revert those laws and focus criminal justice efforts on combatting violent and major crime offenders instead.
It is not beneficial to the government to hold inmates for extended periods of time for minor infractions. Some important statistics for incarceration:
- It is costly. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, an inmate costs an average of $31,000 per year, nationwide.
- There is evidence that prison has long-term negative effects on individuals as “few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the prison experience.”
- Recently, prison sentences have increased drastically in the United States with the average sentence increasing by five years within the US from 2000 to 2014.
- A 2016 study found that more than 2.3 million people were in all types of jails across the United States (federal, local, military, etc.). With a population of 323.4 million in the US in 2016, this means for every 100,00 people residing in the US, about 655 are behind bars.
What This New Bill Will Address:
- Shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
- Changing the three strikes penalty from life in prison to 25 years. However, this is for future offenders, and will not be applied retroactively.
- It will also “extend retroactively a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.” Thousands of inmates have been more heavily penalized for crack cocaine versus it’s powder counterpart. This previously held difference often resulted in African Americans getting significantly harsher sentences than their white counterparts. While retroactive, this applies to offenses only as far back as 2010.
- The bill aims to expand time credits to inmates with a record of good behavior. Previously, inmates could earn 47 days and that would be increased to 54 days per year.
- The bill proposes to have new time credits for inmates participating in job-training.
- The bill would prohibit the shackling of female inmates when pregnant.
- As well, providing female inmates with sanitary napkins and tampons at no cost.
- The bill would require “the Bureau of Prisons to locate prisoners in facilities close to their homes, if possible.” Prisoners will be held within 500 miles of their families.
- The bill will require the Bureau of Prisons to transfer low and minimum risk prisoners to pre-release custody, such as a half-way house or home confinement.
- The bill looks to assist inmates with their transition back into society. A $250 million approved budget over five years will be used to build programs that are education and skill-building.
- Compassionate release eligibility will be reduced from 65 years of age to 60. And the minimum time served for elderly release from 75% to 66% of their sentence.
These changes look to reduce prisoner populations, saving the government costs over the long run.
While this bill is a great step in a new direction, it is important to note that it only applies to federal prisoners which account for approximately 181,000 of the 2.3 million inmate population. However, there is hope that the states will follow in practice and initiate their own criminal reform practices.