What is the “FIRST STEP Act” and how would it help people in federal court?

These past few weeks, news outlets have been heavily focused on the debate in Congress over the “FIRST STEP Act,” a bipartisan proposal to reform federal sentencing laws and conditions in federal prisons. With the president’s recent endorsement, the First Step Act has a good chance of being passed and signed into law next year.

But what exactly would the law do? While it’s impossible to know with certainty what will end up in the final law on the president’s desk, if it gets there, there are several proposals on the table that have widespread support in Congress.

The most notable of these are the proposals aimed at reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, which in some cases have forced judges to sentence defendants to life in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

The law would significantly reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and some violent crimes. For example, the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders with prior drug convictions would be reduced from 20 years to 15 years. The mandatory minimum sentences for offenders with multiple prior convictions would be reduced from life in prison to 25 years.

The First Step Act would also limit the types of offenders who can be sentenced under § 924(c), the federal law that increases a defendant’s sentence by up to 25 years if they were carrying a firearm during their offense. Under the First Step Act, only offenders with prior criminal histories would be subject to the enhanced sentence.

The law also proposes making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Passed in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine offenses. Under the First Step Act, defendants convicted of crack offenses before 2010 would be able to petition the court to reduce their sentences. The Marshall Project reports that this could affect up to 2,600 prisoners.

There are also important proposals to expand the “safety valve,” which allows courts to sentence first-time offenders below the mandatory minimum sentences their offenses would normally require. Currently, only offenders with no criminal history are eligible for the safety valve. The First Step Act would allow people with minor criminal histories to qualify as well. This could make up to 2,000 defendants eligible for safety valve relief.

The other major reforms in the proposed bill focus on the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and life after sentencing, addressing conditions in prisons and proposing programs to help people adjust to life after prison.

Perhaps the biggest change would be the expansion of “prerelease custody,” which allows low-risk offenders to serve the later portions of their sentences in halfway homes or on home arrest. Under the new law, there would likely be a substantial increase in offenders who qualify for prerelease custody. Another significant change would allow some defendants to be released early if they are serving long prison terms for crimes they committed while they were juveniles. This is significant because there is otherwise no parole in the federal system.

Other prison reforms include encouraging the BOP to place prisoners “as close as practicable” to their homes and families, increasing de-escalation training for prison guards, improving treatment for prisoners with substance abuse problems, and new policies aimed reducing solitary confinement.

If passed, this law will bring relief to many prisoners and their families. For that reason, it is important for prisoners and their loved ones to know the law and keep up with its changes. The First Step Act, if passed and signed into law, will reduce the sentences for many prisoners. Contact our firm to speak with an experienced attorney who can help you learn how this law may be able to help you or a loved one.


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