January 8, 2019

Can US criminal justice move beyond the First Step Act?

Biggest reform package in years makes modest changes to prison system but some say broader change is needed.

Thousands of inmates in US federal prisons are hopeful they will be released earlier than expected, after a bipartisan reform bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The First Step Act comprises some of the biggest changes in years to the US federal justice system, in which around 180,000 of the incarcerated population of 2.1 million are held. The act’s provisions include granting inmates additional time credits for good behaviour and for following vocational and rehabilitation programmes. The act also reduces the length of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, while allowing judges more licence to avoid handing down those mandatory sentences to convicts. The act makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the huge imbalance in the length of crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences. It’s estimated 2,600 federal inmates could see their sentences cut as a result.

The bipartisan effort to enact federal justice reform has been heralded by groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative reform group Right On Crime. But other advocates for criminal justice reform say that the act is of limited effect and that far more needs to be done to overhaul the US prison system – particularly given that the vast majority of convicts are held in the state prison system and are thus not subject to the new law.

The First Step Act made it to Trump’s desk after years of wrangling over criminal justice reform in Congress. But what are the prospects for a major second step? We’ll ask our panel for their thoughts.

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:
Justin George @justingeorge
Washington, D.C. correspondent, The Marshall Project

Chandra Bozelko @ChandraBozelko
Formerly incarcerated writer

Patrisse Khan-Cullors @OsopePatrisse
Co-founder & strategic advisor, Black Lives Matter

Read more:

The First Step Act could be a big gift to CoreCivic and the private prison industry - The Intercept
Okay, what's the second step? - The Marshall Project

What do you think? Record a video comment or leave your thoughts in the comments below.