NLADA's Analysis of the First Step Act

You are here

Release Date: 
Friday, December 21, 2018

The passage of the First Step Act signifies an important bipartisan recognition that our federal criminal justice system is disproportionately and counterproductively punitive. NLADA applauds the actions of Congress and the White House in adopting the legislation. Although this law is imperfect, the First Step Act includes meaningful and positive consequences for many people involved in the American criminal justice system. NLADA hopes that this action represents a first step in more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The act makes various important changes to the federal criminal justice system. It will reduce by a relatively modest degree the excessiveness of mandatory minimum sentences, but not for people who have already been sentenced. The act will also establish recidivism reduction programs and other provisions to facilitate successful reentry, but it is not clear if implementation will be fully fair or equitable.

Main Components:

Proportionality in Sentencing: The act reduces the length of the mandatory minimum sentences that are imposed for many drug offenses (e.g., 20-year minimums are reduced to 15; life without release is reduced to 25 years) and enhances judicial discretion through expanded “safety valves” that will improve the ability of courts to decide more just and proportionate sentences in some cases.

However, because mandatory minimums are reduced but not eliminated, and because they are not applied retroactively, the impact will be limited and federal courts will continue to be restricted by rigid requirements that preclude consideration of a person’s unique circumstances. The legislation does apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, making people sentenced for crack cocaine offenses prior to its passage in 2010 eligible to apply for re-sentencing.

Recidivism Reduction Systems: The act also provides for the development of recidivism reduction and reentry programs that include access to skills training, education, and personal development that will help people prepare for a successful transition back into the community. Meaningful incentives, including time credits that can be applied toward early supervised release or home confinement, are available to facilitate successful participation in these programs.

However, eligibility and incentives will rely on risk and needs assessment tools. Such tools can cause unwarranted disparities, particularly with respect to racial classifications. Additionally, multiple categories of offenses, including immigration offenses, are excluded from eligibility for these programs.

Other Improvements: Finally, the act will strengthen the ability of prisoners to successfully return to their communities by reauthorizing the Second Chance Act, which provides federal grants for reentry assistance. It will also improve the treatment of federal prisoners, including by requiring that (subject to numerous conditions) prisoners be located closer to their families; limiting solitary confinement for juveniles; requiring de-escalation training for Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees; limiting the restraint of pregnant or postpartum prisoners; and providing free access to feminine healthcare products for female prisoners.

NLADA will continue to work with Congress and the administration, along with our members and partners around the country, to ensure equitable implementation of the First Step Act, build on the successes of this new law and improve systems in areas where the act falls short.