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First Step Act One Year Later: What Have We Learned?

Dark and grungy prison cell at night
By Andrew Leonatti on October 31, 2019 7:59 AM

We are approaching the first anniversary of the First Step Act, a landmark piece of criminal justice reform legislation. Embraced by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the law has already led to thousands of people being released from federal prisons.

But one year later, according to advocates, it is clear that the law represents just that: a first step.

The Progress so Far

Appearing before Congress last week, Department of Justice officials said there has been significant achievements made under the law. Those include:

  • Early release of 3,100 federal inmates due to the increase in good conduct allowances
  • Release of 2,100 federal inmates due to their excessive sentences for crack cocaine convictions being brought into line with powder cocaine sentences
  • Ending of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates and restraining of pregnant inmates
  • Implementation of new compassionate release guidelines for certain elderly and ill inmates
  • Offering of new deescalation training for Bureau of Prisons officers
  • Reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses

A Long Way to Go

Also appearing at the hearing, however, was University of Surrey (U.K.) Professor Melissa Hamilton. She noted that the Department of Justice's implementation of its risk and needs assessment tool, designed to identify inmates who qualify for relief under the First Step Act, is woefully inadequate.

Hamilton said that black male inmates "are far less likely" to reap the benefits of the act. Other advocates for criminal justice reform have expressed similar sentiments. They've also called for regular funding from Congress to ensure the Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice can continue to build on their progress.

And as some inmates have successfully petitioned for early release under the law, it's clear that at least some federal prosecutors are not on board with the changes. There are numerous news stories of prosecutors fighting the early release of qualifying inmates. One of those inmates included Gregory Allen, who appeared with President Trump at a news conference touting the law's benefits.

Don't Count on the Government

The takeaway? If you have a loved one currently serving time in federal prison, and you think they qualify for early release under the First Step Act, you cannot just count on the government to protect their rights.

It is essential that you speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who understands sentencing guidelines to explore your options.

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