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The First Step Act offers bipartisan criminal justice reform

It's not every day that the American Civil Liberties Union and President Trump agree on legislation, but groups from across the political spectrum have come together to support the federal First Step Act. The bill promises significant reforms to both federal criminal sentencing and to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. What would the law do?

Finally end the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced what had been a 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and equal amounts of powder cocaine. Since African-Americans tended to use crack and whites powder, the disparity hit the African-Americans harshly. In 2011, the FSA was applied retroactively to almost all crack defendants, giving them the opportunity to petition for resentencing under the FSA. The First Step Act would apply that retroactivity to approximately 2,600 defendants who were left out.

Reduce unduly harsh, mandatory minimum sentences

The bill would also shorten some mandatory minimum sentences. Some crimes that now call for a 20-year minimum sentence would be reduced to 15 years, for example. The federal "three strikes" rule would also change. Currently, three qualifying felony convictions automatically result in a life sentence. That would be reduced to an automatic 25-year sentence. Moreover, judges would be given discretion to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences in more cases.

Enforce existing prison rules and improve reentry services 

Critics have accused the Federal Bureau of Prisons of routinely ignoring its own policies and even congressional mandates. For example, shackling pregnant prisoners has been against BOP policy since 2008, but it continues to happen. The First Step Act would enforce existing laws and policies and add programs for reentry into society:

  • Require placement of prisoners within 500 miles of their homes and families
  • Let prisoners earn more time off their sentences for good behavior
  • Let prisoners earn the chance to serve part of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement by attending rehabilitation programs
  • Provide female prisoners with free tampons and sanitary napkins
  • Provide an additional $375 million for reentry programming, such as education and job training programs
  • Promote the use of the least-restrictive supervision program during reentry
  • Make it easier for outside groups like churches to provide prison and reentry programming
  • Increase eligibility for compassionate release programs for elderly and terminally ill prisoners

The First Step Act may not solve all of the problems with our criminal justice system, but it does make progress in the right direction. What else do you think needs to be reformed?

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