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How Does the First Step Act Reform Criminal Justice?

Black gavel with reform sign indicating criminal justice reform

Criminal justice has always needed reform and now has been acknowledged in the passing of the First Step Act.

In a rare moment of agreement among congressional republicans, democrats, and President Trump, a criminal justice reform bill was just passed by the United States House of Representatives, following overwhelming approval in an 87-12 vote in the Senate.  President Trump then signed the bill into law.  The “First Step Act” is backed by organizations as diverse in viewpoint as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers’ Right on Crime.  Read on for details about the historic law, and contact a seasoned Chicago criminal defense lawyer to find out how this law might affect you if you are facing federal charges or have been convicted of a federal offense. 

Reform in the First Step Act

The First Step Act (FSA) is aimed at reducing the prison population and addressing sentencing disparity among similar crimes by altering federal sentencing laws and procedures.  Reforms in the new law include the following: 

  • The FSA makes retroactive reforms that were included in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The 2010 act reduced the disparity between sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  The new law will allow current inmates to apply for sentence reductions based on the changes.
  • The FSA limits mandatory minimum sentences in a few ways.  It expands the “safety valve” which allows judges to depart downwards from statutory mandatory minimums.  It reduces the “three strikes” penalty from life to 25 years for defendants with multiple convictions.  It also limits the prosecutorial practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add decades to their sentences.
  • The FSA increases “good time credits” from 47 days to 54 days per year, meaning that current inmates can earn up to 54 days per year off of their total sentence for good behavior.  This applies retroactively, and as many as 4,000 current inmates may qualify for release the day the law goes into effect.
  • The FSA allows additional “earned time credits” for participation in vocational and other rehabilitation programs.  This would allow some inmates to be released early into halfway houses or other home confinement after participation in the relevant programs, reducing prison crowding and hopefully reducing the likelihood that those inmates will commit future crimes.  Use of the credits will be limited to prisoners who are considered low risk based on an automated algorithm.

What the New Law Does Not Do

While the First Step Act is considered by many to be the most significant federal criminal justice reform bill in decades, criminal justice advocates are quick to point out that the law is truly only a “first step.”  It provides modest changes to federal law but still leaves much to be fixed in the criminal justice system.  The law does not eliminate punitive mandatory minimums or reduce sentences across the board; it does not end mass incarceration or the private prison system; it does not legalize marijuana.  Also of note, the law applies only to the federal system which accounts for less than 10 percent of the more than 2.1 million people currently in U.S. jails and prisons.  Many states have recently passed broader criminal justice reforms including elimination of bail, drug decriminalization, and reduced prison sentences across the board.  Criminal justice reform advocates are also skeptical of the algorithms used in some of the FSA provisions, which they claim may perpetuate racial inequality in sentencing.

If you’re facing criminal charges in Illinois, protect your future by seeking representation from skilled, dedicated, and compassionate Chicagoland criminal defense lawyers.  Contact the Carol Stream offices of Johnson, Westra, Broecker, Whittaker & Newitt for a consultation on your case at 630-665-9600.

Johnson Westra Broker Whittaker & Newitt, P.C.

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