In May, the House of Representatives passed the FIRST STEP Act (also known as the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act”), a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that was initially panned by critics and some Senators who said it didn’t do enough to advance reform.
Yesterday (December 18), after many changes, the United States Senate voted 87-12 in favor of the latest iteration of the FIRST STEP Act. If the revised act makes it through a vote in the House and President Donald Trump signs it, it will greatly impact the 180,789 people currently incarcerated in the federal system. Not so much for the rest of the 2.3 million incarcerated people living in the United States who are disproportionately Black, Latinx and Native American.
As quoted from supporter-backed site FirstStepAct.org, the bill contains the following provisions:
Fix good time credits ensuring that incarcerated individuals can earn the 54 days of good time credit per year, and not just the 47 days that [Bureau of Prisons (BOP)] currently allows. This retroactively applies to everyone in federal prison who has earned credit for good behavior.
Major incentives for participating in programs, allowing for 10 days in prerelease custody for every 30 days of successful participation, with no cap on the prerelease credit that can be earned.
Availability of prerelease custody by requiring the BOP to transfer low and minimum risk prisoners to prerelease custody—either a half-way house or home confinement.
Creation and expansion of life-changing classes by authorizing $250 million over five years to the BOP for the development and expansion of programming focused on skill-building, education and vocational training.
Prioritize people inside who need it most because evidence shows that individuals who are at the greatest risk of future crime are the most in need of treatment, classes and counseling.
Move people closer to home because contact with family is one of the most important aspects that will help individuals reintegrate into society successfully.
Dignity for women by banning the shackling of pregnant women and extending those protections to three months after her pregnancy.
Provide IDs to ensure that individuals leaving federal prison have their ID prior to their release.
Expand compassionate release by reducing the minimum age of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from 65 years of age to 60 years of age, and minimum time served of prisoner eligibility for elderly release from 75 percent to 2/3.
Hold the Bureau of Prisons accountable because we know that well-intentioned legislation can be thwarted or undermined during the implementation phase. Throughout the bill, there is language providing that BOP and the Attorney General shall do things, not just that they may do them.
The leaders of several civil rights and racial justice organizations issued statements about the Senate passage. Many are pleased with the outcome of the vote, but clear that the legislation doesn’t go far enough to reform a system that thrives on the incarceration of Black and Brown bodies.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.: “In passing the FIRST STEP Act, the Senate took strides toward true comprehensive criminal justice reform, including the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010—the law that reduced the racist powder and crack cocaine sentencing disparity. The retroactive application of this law is something that LDF has sought since the original bill was negotiated and we are gratified that it was finally included in this reform package. While the final legislation still includes some provisions that are deeply troubling, including the use of risk assessments to determine release eligibility for incarcerated individuals, as well as not extending some of the sentencing provisions to those currently incarcerated, we are pleased with those reform provisions that constitute a first step forward to make our criminal justice system truly just. […] We note however that we have a great deal of work left to do to achieve true criminal justice reform.”
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: “The Senate’s bipartisan vote to pass the FIRST STEP Act is an important, but modest step forward for justice and human dignity. But it is not the end of our fight. This bipartisan bill offers some important improvements to the current federal system, but it falls short of providing the meaningful change that is required, as we explained in a letter to the Senate. More work will be needed as we push for transformational change that will end mass incarceration in America.” Sue Mangold, CEO of Juvenile Law Center: “Youth placed in solitary confinement face devastating consequences including depression, sleeplessness, psychosis, and hallucinations. Youth solitary confinement can lead to self-harm and even suicide. This reform package takes the important step of prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for youth in the federal justice system. We applaud Senator Booker for his tireless efforts to include this provision. The developing adolescent brain is especially harmed by solitary confinement. Every state should follow this federal lead to ban the use of solitary confinement of youth.”
Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the Washington Legislative Office at the American Civil Liberties Union: “The FIRST STEP Act is by no means perfect. But we are in the midst of a mass incarceration crisis, and the time to act is now. We applaud the bipartisan group of Senators who were willing to listen to advocates and include important sentencing reforms that will grant thousands of currently incarcerated people a second chance. People’s lives are at stake. We’re delighted to see common sense prevail and the first step move closer to the finish line.”
Sandy Santana, executive director for Children’s Rights (via emailed statement): “We are also pleased that the Senate took steps to reverse some of the most onerous policies in our nation’s broken criminal justice system by passing the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act and ending the cruel practice of juvenile solitary confinement at the federal level. Science has shown the physical damage solitary confinement has on the brain development of adolescents. And we know this type of extreme punishment causes further emotional trauma and harm to young people that includes depression, psychosis and hallucinations, and does nothing to get young people the rehabilitative care they need. But the only way to truly end the practice is for states to join the federal government in ending solitary confinement as well.” Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50:
But not everyone is cautiously optimistic about the newly signed legislation. On Monday (December 17), ahead of the vote, The Movement for Black Lives issued a statement in opposition to the bill, saying that, “We believe that in addition to not reaching far enough to ensure our peoples’ freedom from all forms of incarceration, the FIRST STEP Act is an intentionally divisive bill that authors a dangerous future for all of our families and communities.” Read the full breakdown of the act from the coalition—which is made up of 150+ Black-led organizations—here.