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After Five Years Of 'First Step,' Will Federal Justice Reform Continue?

United States Sentencing Commission

President Trump signed the sentencing and prison reform law known as the First Step Act five years ago this week. The measure has been hailed as the only major bipartisan criminal justice bill to be approved by a divided Congress in recent years.

Like many pieces of complex criminal justice legislation, First Step has attracted its share of supporters and critics. Reformers say it does not go far enough to improve the lives of federal prisoners while opponents contend that its reductions of some inmates' terms are unwarranted.

Some insiders say that Trump himself has soured on the bill that he signed. One of his main opponents in the presidential race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, voted for a version of the measure as a member of the House of Representatives, but lately has labeled it a "jailbreak bill" and vowed to veto it if he wins the White House.

Kevin Ring, who lobbied for the bill as president of FAMM before joining Arnold Ventures, writes in The Hill that it "has fulfilled its promise to improve public safety while reducing unnecessary incarceration."

First Step allows low-risk prisoners who finish rehabilitation programs to serve more time near their terms' end in a halfway house or on electronic monitoring.

The law also made what Ring calls "modest reforms" in harsh drug sentencing laws, such as one that required 25-year sentence additions to some first-time offenders.

Of nearly 30,000 people released under the First Step Act, only 12 percent have been re-arrested or returned to federal custody, about 37% lower than the rate among prisoners released before the law was passed, says the think tank Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

When homicides and some other crime categories increased during the pandemic, some critics blamed reforms like First Step.

CCJ estimates that at worst, there have been 4,330 arrests of people released under First Step, two one-hundredths of one percent of the 20 million annual arrests around the nation.

A new report from the Justice Department said that of the 145,062 persons in federal prison at year end 2022, more than half were classified as minimum or low risk for recidivism.

About 54% of those released under First Step completed at least one rehab program in prison. CCJ acknowledges that the lower recidivism rate can't be credited solely to the law because it is possible that "people with the most motivation for post-release success were more likely to complete these programs."

Ring argues that reformers "dropped the ball" in responding to charges that First Step contributed to rising crime rates.

"We had wisely urged policymakers not to rely so heavily on prisons, but then seemed increasingly unwilling to acknowledge that prison is ever necessary," Ring wrote.

He argues that when analyzing increases in crime rates, "Justice reform is not the problem. Commonsense reform is the answer. A justice system that solves only half of all murders and less than a third of all rapes is not maximizing public safety. That we divert billions of dollars in anti-crime spending away from preventing and solving serious crimes" like these so that we can keep an increasingly elderly prison population locked up makes no sense.

On the law itself, the advocacy organization The Sentencing Project concluded in a report published in August that, "Access to rehabilitative programming remains inadequate and a lack of transparency has plagued the rollout of earned time credits" that allow earlier releases of some inmates.

The group contends that the federal Bureau of Prisons "must ensure that the First Step Act achieves its full rehabilitative potential."

Reformers say Congress could take more action on sentencing and prison issues.

Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote this week that a bill to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine was approved by the House, 361–66 margin, only to "fall to dysfunction in the Senate."

Waldman called for moves "to make sentences more reasonable, improve prison conditions, and help people leaving prison have a better chance at successful reentry. Bills pending in Congress right now would accomplish all of these things."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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