Skip to content

The First Step Act: A Look at the Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Law

In December 2018, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act, marking one of the most significant reforms to the federal criminal justice system in recent history. The law was passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress and aimed to reduce prison populations while also giving inmates better opportunities to successfully reenter society after release.

What Does the First Step Act Do?

The First Step Act includes several major provisions:

  • Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and retroactively applies the change, allowing around 2,600 federal inmates to seek reduced sentences.
  • Bans the shackling of pregnant inmates and requires Bureau of Prisons to place female inmates closer to their families.
  • Expands "good time credits" that inmates can earn to reduce time served for good behavior. Inmates earn 10 days of credit for every 30 days they participate in recidivism reduction programs.
  • Allows inmates to earn up to one year in halfway houses or home confinement pre-release. Previously inmates were limited to 6 months or 10% of their sentence.
  • Requires inmates be placed within 500 driving miles of their families when possible.
  • Provides $375 million for expanded job training and educational programs in prisons aimed at lowering recidivism rates.

The goal of the First Step Act is to reduce recidivism rates and better prepare inmates to reenter society by incentivizing participation in rehabilitative programs. Supporters argued our justice system had gone too far in enacting harsh mandatory minimums that kept nonviolent offenders locked up for too long.

While many have hailed the First Step Act as an important reform, some conservative leaders are now voicing criticism and calling for revisions. Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the law has gone "a little too far, a little too lenient."

DeSantis pointed specifically to provisions that allow some inmates to earn expanded good-time credits and serve partial sentences in home confinement. He argues this has allowed dangerous criminals back on the streets too early.

The governor cited several cases of inmates benefiting from the First Step Act later committing violence crimes after their early release in Florida. This includes a drug trafficker who murdered someone two months after being freed under the law.

DeSantis said the law needs to be reformed to restrict good-time credits and home confinement benefits for serious violent offenders. However, advocates of the law argue it was specifically designed to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders and that only a very small number have gone on to commit crimes again.

Early Results Show Reduced Recidivism

While critiques continue, early statistics suggest the First Step Act's focus on recidivism reduction programs is working to help former inmates successfully reenter society.

According to the Department of Justice, about 2,800 federal inmates have completed recidivism reduction programming under the law. Of those released, only 1.1% have been rearrested or had their supervision revoked.

This recidivism rate is significantly lower than the national average. A 2018 federal report found that 83% of state prisoners released were arrested again within 9 years. The early success provides hope that offering improved educational, vocational and therapeutic programs better prepares past offenders.

The First Step Act represents a bipartisan effort to reform our criminal justice system and help inmates become productive members of society. While valid concerns exist over implementation, initial data shows great promise in reducing recidivism through rehabilitation. Ongoing assessment and improvements to the law are important to ensure public safety while promoting effectiveness.

Help people navigate the criminal justice system

The RePath App electronically assists individuals through the criminal justice process. Agencies can choose from multiple supervision levels dependent on their specific needs.