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Trump Signs Bipartisan 'First Step' Criminal Justice Reform

January 17, 2019

One of the largest reforms of the federal criminal justice system in generations is now law.

President Trump has signed into law a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act.

The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (FIRST STEP Act) passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, 87 to 12, and the House, 358 to 36, and Trump signed it on December 21, 2018.

The legislation received widespread support on both the Right and the Left, says Justin Haskins, a research fellow with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“It’s good to see there is still some common ground between liberals and conservatives,” said Haskins.

The purpose of the reforms is to encourage successful reentry into society, says Haskins.

“What it says is we want to help people be independent and not dependent on government,” Haskins said.

Several Reforms Included

The First Step Act includes reforms in sentencing, credits for participation in prison programs, and early prisoner release.

The act reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for repeat offenders under the federal “three strikes” law from life in prison to 25 years for prisoners convicted of nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.

It also requires the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to house federal prisoners in facilities within 500 miles of their homes and families.

The new law allows prisoners to receive early-release credits for time in work training programs, and it allows prerelease custody in which nonviolent offenders can serve part of their sentences in halfway houses or on monitored in-house arrest.

States Led the Way

The First Step Act draws on reforms implemented in several states, says John Nothdurft, former director of government relations at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“The First Step Act is a great step on criminal justice reform, which has been led for a long time at the state level by states such as Georgia and Texas, and that has finally percolated up to the federal level,” said Nothdurft.

The First Step Act applies only to federal prisoners, of whom there are 181,000 out of a total national incarcerated population of about 2.1 million, including state prisons and jails.

The new law may have far-reaching effects beyond the current reforms to the federal system it makes, says Nothdurft.

“This is not just affecting federal inmates in for nonviolent crimes,” said Nothdurft. “This will hopefully give a roadmap to other states that have been kind of slow to enact criminal justice reform.”

‘Starts a Conversation’

Haskins says the new law can be a starting point for other criminal justice reforms.

“It starts a conversation that can lead to other reforms, such as in civil asset forfeiture,” says Haskins.

The reforms will benefit society as well as the prisoners, says Nothdurft.

“We need to get people coming out of prison into the workforce, said Nothdurft. “We have more jobs than we have people to fill them.”

Sarah Quinlan (think@heartland.org) writes from New York City, New York.