What is the First Step Act?

What is the First Step Act?

In 2018, Congress passed and former President Donald Trump signed into law The First Step Act. The idea behind the law, which both political parties supported, was simple: reducing the federal prison population while also maintaining public safety.

What did the First Step Act do?

The First Step Act has two main parts: the Time Credits Program and several sentencing-reform measures. Those sentence-reform measures include

  • reducing mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses,
  • expanding the so-called “safety valve” provision,
  • eliminating the “stacking” provision,
  • applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively and
  • changing the manner in which the Bureau of Prisons calculate good time credits.

Whether it be the First Step Act Time Credits Program or the sentencing-reform measures, all of the law’s changes could prove helpful for those in BOP custody. Let’s break each party down a bit…

The First Step Act Time Credits Program

The First Step Act Time Credits Program is arguably the most significant part of the 2018 law. It allows people in BOP custody to reduce their sentences by participating in in-prison programs and activities. Rather than repeat what we’ve already wrote about the First Step Act Time Credits Program, we’d encourage you to click here for more information.

Image courtesy of Kurt Kaiser via Wikimedia Commons.

Reducing Mandatory-Minimum Sentences

The First Step Act reduced mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related offenses for people who have at least one prior conviction. If you have only one prior conviction, the mandatory minimum went from 20 years to 15 years. And, if you had two or more prior convictions, the the mandatory minimum went from a life sentence to 25 years.

The First Step Act also changed how courts determine whether a prior conviction triggers these mandatory-minimum rules. Rather than simply requiring a felony drug offense, the 2018 law requires that a prior conviction constitute a “serious drug felony” or “serious violent felony.” Serious drug felonies must carry a maximum of 10 years or more. And the individual must have served more than 12 months on that conviction within the past 15 years.

Expanding the “Safety Valve” Provision

The First Step Act also expanded the “safety valve” provision that previously applied to people without a criminal record. This “safety valve” provision allows judges to sentence low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to a term of imprisonment that is less than the mandatory minimum that would ordinarily apply. Now, because of the new law, that “safety valve” provision applies to drug offenders with minor criminal records as well.

Eliminating the “Stacking” Provision

Before the First Step Act, someone convicted of two or more drug-trafficking offenses involving a firearm in the same case could be subject to the “stacking” provision. This means that they would face a 25-year minimum for two or more convictions. This was true even though those convictions were from the same case. Now, however, the “stacking” provision applies only when the individual has a separate, prior conviction.

Image courtesy of Trump White House via Wikimedia Commons.

Applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 Retroactively

The First Step Act retroactively applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. Now, prisoners serving sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine can petition to have their sentences reduced. The Fair Sentencing Act’s provisions specifically addressed the disparity in sentences for powder and crack cocaine.

Originally, someone convicted of possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine faced the same 10-year minimum that someone convicted of possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine did. The same disparity existed with five-year minimums, too: Five grams of crack cocaine got you the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine.

With the Fair Sentencing Act, the crack-to-power ratio went from five to 500 (or 50 to 5,000) to 28 to 500 (or 280 to 5,000). But this change didn’t apply to people who were already sentenced. The First Step Act fixed that.

Changing How the BOP Calculates Good Time Credits

The First Step Act also amended 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), the “good time credits” statute. Now, prisoners can earn up to 54 days of good time credit for every year of their sentence imposed. This is different than what it used to be, which only considered every year of their sentence served. Under the prior version, people were only earning around 47 days of good time credit for every year of their sentence imposed.

The Takeaway:

The First Step Act is one of the most significant criminal-justice-reform measures in most of our lifetimes. On paper, it accomplished its goal of reducing the federal prison population while also maintaining public safety. In reality, its implementation, especially when it comes to the First Step Act Time Credits Program implementation, has been disappointing.

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