January 9, 2019

Groundbreaking Federal Criminal Justice Reform Bill Signed into Law

The federal First Step Act, signed into law on Dec. 21, is a criminal justice reform measure that seeks to change some of the outdated federal criminal justice policies. Its provisions are the most progressive policy proposals the system has seen in decades. They will:

  • Make the changes from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. This law, under President Obama’s administration, reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. According to the Marshall Project, nearly 2,600 federal inmates could be impacted.
  • Eliminate the practice of shackling women inmates during childbirth.
  • Expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. The new law will change the sentencing length to 25 years instead of life for the “three strikes” rule. For instance, the minimum sentencing for offenders with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, will be 25 years. Further, it will limit the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to increase their prison sentences.
  • Prioritize family visitation by instituting a general rule requiring that inmates are placed closer to their families.
  • Increase the amount of “good time credits” available for inmates to earn. Currently, inmates without a disciplinary record can earn credits of up to 47 days for each year incarcerated. The First Step Act increases the cap to 54 days per year, making it easier for well-behaved inmates to reduce their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. Equally significant is that this change is retroactive. As soon as the bill becomes effective, as many as 4,000 federal inmates may be qualified for release, according to supporters.
  • Make inmates’ participation in vocational and rehabilitative programs a means to earn credits. This provision will allow inmates to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. The latter is significant to federal prison’s population size, and to recidivism rates. Studies have shown that inmates’ participation in educational programs reduces the likelihood to re-offend.

The bill does have some serious restrictions, however. Not all inmates will be eligible for these changes. Inmates who are considered as “higher risks” will not be able to cash in their good time credits for early release but will still be eligible to earn these credits. Moreover, undocumented immigrants are excluded from earning credits. To decide eligibility for these changes, the federal prison system will be relying on an algorithm, a machine learning tool that would assess an offender’s risk level. There are many policy implications in utilizing such a device. For instance, studies have shown that algorithm tools used in the criminal justice system tend to disproportionately affect African-American inmates relative to their white counterparts. In a ProPublica study, it was found that the software used across the country to predict an inmate’s future criminality was biased against Blacks.

A lot more remains to be done, especially in terms of front-end criminal justice reform, but overall, this is a first step in the right direction. Some Florida lawmakers, like Sen. Brandes, are excited about the change, and are hoping it will pave the way for similar change here in Florida.

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