The FIRST STEP Act

Have you been Keeping Up with the Kardashians? With the help of Kim Kardashian, in late 2018, Congress enacted its most sweeping prison reform legislation in a generation. Formally known as the First Step Act, the law’s purpose is to shorten sentences somewhat for particular crimes and improve conditions of incarceration for some inmates as well.

While momentous, the prison reform law deals solely with the federal criminal justice system and has no direct impact on the states, which house the vast majority of prison inmates. Nevertheless, the legislation will meaningfully affect defendants prosecuted for federal crimes, such as drug-trafficking and firearms offenses.

The 2018 prison reform law was a triumph of bipartisan efforts taking place over several years leading up to the law’s passage. Progressives and conservatives worked together to lessen the tough punishments imposed on nonviolent drug offenders, to address racial inequities in the system, and to ease the budgetary burden of mass incarceration. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were well aware of the embarrassing fact that the United States, with less than five percent of global population, holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prison inmates.

The 2018 law was part and parcel of a broader prison reform movement. A number of states, such as California and Florida, have already adopted far-reaching amendments to their own sentencing laws.

One of the new prison reform law’s most significant changes relates to automatic sentences. In previous decades the central thrust of criminal justice reform had been to make prison sentences tougher and more uniform. Congress had forced federal judges to sentence many defendants to at least a certain minimum number of years in prison, regardless of any extenuating circumstances that otherwise might have led to leniency.

The 2018 law doesn’t repeal mandatory sentencing laws, but it shrinks the length of the minimums. For instance, a defendant who previously would have been subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years might now face one of 15 years. In addition, the new legislation allows judges greater discretion to ignore the minimums in some circumstances.

Congress didn’t make the shortened minimums retroactive, so federal inmates already serving their time gain no relief from the change.

One group of federal inmates who will benefit dramatically from the new law are individuals prosecuted for crack cocaine offenses before 2010 and still serving prison time. This unlucky group wasn’t covered by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the enormous disparity between crack and powdered cocaine punishments, because that law wasn’t retroactive as originally passed. The 2018 prison reform law finally makes it retroactive and thus allows this group of crack cocaine offenders to petition for a reduction in their prison terms.

Among its other noteworthy reforms, the 2018 law includes provisions designed to: 1) Modify the way that good-time credits are computed for federal inmates; 2) Require inmates to be placed within 500 miles of their homes or families; 3) Increase the use of home confinement and halfway houses; 4) Prohibit the use of shackles or restraints on pregnant inmates, and provide female inmates free tampons and sanitary napkins; and 5) Make it easier for elderly or terminally ill inmates to obtain compassionate release. President Trump signed the bipartisan bill into law on Dec. 21, 2018.

If you or a loved one is in a bind as a result of a criminal charge, immediately contact a Seattle Criminal Attorney. A Criminal lawyer is not going to judge you, and understands that everyone makes mistakes. Hiring a Seattle Criminal Lawyer to help can – at a minimum – reduce penalties, and can help direct people on how to best deal with their criminal charge, and many times even get them dismissed. So it should go without saying that someone cited for a misdemeanor or felony should hire a qualified Seattle Criminal Lawyer as soon as possible. Criminal charges can cause havoc on a person’s personal and professional life. Anyone charged with a crime in Washington State should immediately seek the assistance of a seasoned Seattle Criminal Lawyer.

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