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 the overly harsh sentences of certain federal prison inmates and to improve conditions of incarceration for some 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.
Backdrop of the Reform Effort
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.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences Eased
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.
Crack Cocaine Sentences Reduced
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.
First Step Sentencing and Prison Reform: Other Provisions
Among its other noteworthy reforms, the 2018 law includes provisions designed to:
President Trump signed the bipartisan bill into law on Dec. 21, 2018.
Have Questions about Sentencing Laws? Talk to a Lawyer
If you have a question about criminal sentencing, it's worthwhile to contact a criminal defense lawyer near you to discuss the matter. Only an expert attorney can advise you about the 2018 prison reform law and other laws and how they may apply to a specific situation.