The Sentencing Project has released a new brief titled “The First Step Act: Ending Mass Incarceration in Federal Prisons,” which sheds light on the positive outcomes of the First Step Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation signed into law in 2018.
According to the brief, the Act, which promotes rehabilitation and reducing excessive sentences within the federal prison system, has demonstrated success in its efforts.
“During the 1980s and 1990s, the enactment of harsh mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements led to a prison system that incarcerated far too many people who posed little risk of community harm, with especially dramatic effects on Black Americans,” stated Ashley Nellis, the co-director of research at The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report.
“The First Step Act has been a critical means of reducing excess incarceration while prioritizing community safety,” Nellis asserted.
Liz Komar, Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project, and co-author of the report, lauded the Act’s success as a starting point and called for its expansion.
“The First Step Act is viewed broadly as a successful first step, and lawmakers are wise to expand it,” Komar said.
“Bipartisan groups, including The Sentencing Project, urge Congress to build on it by passing the bipartisan First Step Implementation Act, the Safer Detention Act, and the EQUAL Act.”
According to the report’s authors, the Safer Detention Act would correct a significant flaw in the First Step Act.
Currently, the First Step Act prohibits the oldest people in federal prisons – those convicted before November 1, 1987 – from applying to courts for compassionate release.
The Safer Detention Act would make them eligible and allow older adults who have served most of their sentence and who the Bureau of Prisons deems a low risk to return to their families via the elderly home detention pilot program.
The EQUAL Act would expand upon the First Step Act’s cocaine sentencing reform provisions by prospectively and retroactively eliminating the infamously racist disparity in mandatory minimum thresholds between crack and powder cocaine.
Still, the report outlined several positive impacts of the First Step Act, including lower recidivism, earned time credits, expanded good time credits, and amended compassionate release.
“While the First Step Act has proven successful in many aspects, its implementation has faced significant challenges limiting its overall impact and effectiveness,” the authors wrote.
They asserted that one of the critical issues is the failure of the Bureau of Prisons to provide sufficient rehabilitative programming and to accurately apply earned time credits, leading to individuals remaining incarcerated beyond their earned release dates.
Additionally, the report noted that lengthy waitlists for programs hinder incarcerated individuals from maximizing their credit potential.
“The Sentencing Project urges the Bureau of Prisons to implement the First Step Act fully, thus enhancing its positive impact on reducing mass incarceration and promoting successful rehabilitation among the federal prison population,” the authors wrote.