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The First Step Act: Why the Federal Justice System is Still Tough on Crime


On Tuesday, December 18, the Senate passed the nation's most significant federal criminal justice reform in history by voting 87-12 in favor of the First Step Act. While that's a major and much-anticipated accomplishment, the measure is far from the "sweeping" reform hailed by headlines.

While the bill may be limited in its scope, it will have an impact on the lives of thousands of inmates currently incarcerated in federal prisons, and offer savings for taxpayers. As the name implies, it’s also being viewed as a major “first step” toward more robust reform of crime and sentencing policies, and a significant starting point for ending mass incarceration in America.

The First Step Act Explained

To help you better understand what the First Step Act will and will not do when it comes to federal crimes and federal prisons, here are a few of the bill’s major provisions:

  • Retroactive sentencing reforms – The First Step Act makes sentencing policy changes enacted under 2010’s Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, including those which reduce the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. According to lawmakers, that retroactive application could apply to over 2,500 federal inmates currently serving time for qualifying offenses committed prior to 2010.
  • Easing mandatory minimums – Mandatory minimums have become infamous for the severe and lengthy sentences they produce. Under the Act, judges will be able to use an expanded “safety valve” to avoid levying mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases, which they could only previously do in cases involving non-violent federal drug crimes and offenders with no criminal history. That alone is expected to impact as many as 2,000 potentially eligible people each year. Further, the bill reduces the life sentence that accompanies a “third strike” to a 25-year sentence, brings the 20-year minimum sentence for serious drug crimes down to 15 years, and eases the practice of “stacking” gun enhancement charges against drug offenders. As of yet, however, provisions regarding mandatory minimums under the Act do not apply retroactively.
  • Good time credits – Many states across the country have passed aggressive policy overhauls to reduce bloated prison populations, which allow many inmates in state prisons across the country to obtain an early release. Federal prisons, on the other hand, are notorious for housing inmates for much larger percentages of their sentences. Under the act, that will change as a result of increased good time credits made available to inmates without disciplinary records, and those who complete more programming. That provision is still limited, though, increasing the cap from 47 days to 54 days, or roughly a week per year of incarceration. Because it does apply retroactively, it may allow upwards of 4,000 inmates to qualify for early release.
  • Enforcing what’s on the books – There are a number of provisions in the First Step Act that address policies already in place and ensure the BOP complies with them. These include policies for things like placing inmates in prisons no further than 500 miles from their homes or families, and matching inmates with various services and opportunities for rehabilitation, education, and job training. By participating in such programs, inmates would not only qualify for increased good time credits, but also an additional 10 days of halfway house or home confinement time for every 30 days spent in an appropriate program.

The Feds Are Still Tough on Crime

As a law firm with considerable experience defending the freedoms and futures of clients facing all types of federal charges throughout Ohio, Friedman Nemecek Long & Grant, L.L.C., L.L.C. Attorneys at Law knows the federal criminal justice system rightfully earns its reputation as a difficult venue for defendants. From the extensive resources used by federal investigators to the harsh sentencing guidelines that make federal indictments high stakes cases, dealing with the federal government is no joke.

While the First Step Act may very well be a step in the right direction, it does not detract from the difficulties of federal criminal cases. The U.S. government and its many law enforcement agencies remain committed to aggressively investigating, prosecuting, and penalizing offenders. As our lawmakers celebrate this bipartisan bill, our firm and many other federal criminal defense attorneys know our work representing the accused and challenging the federal government will remain a tough task that requires extensive work.

If or someone you love has a federal criminal case to discuss in Ohio or anywhere throughout Ohio, our nationally recognized team is here to help. Call (216) 928-7700 or contact us online to request a consultation.