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First Step Law Is Still Taking Its First Steps, Experts Say


A still of prison-reform advocate Van Jones from the film

The First Step Act could still prove to be a major advance for the federal prison system despite its many challenges, says law Prof. Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor teaching at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.


The First Step Act is a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that was signed in 2018 by former President Trump. It is aimed at creating a credit system for those seeking to shorten the length of their sentences and at improving conditions for inmates.


“There’s a lot left to do,” Osler says. “it’s pretty telling that we are still talking about the first step.”


Osler spoke at a film screening of "The First Step" co-hosted by Arizona State University's Academy for Justice and Dream.org. The event included talks by criminal justice reform advocates, as well as Lance Kramer, the documentary's producer.


"The First Step" is a documentary about the process of getting The First Step Act passed through a divided Congress and signed into law by Trump.


The 90-minute film also features CNN political commentator Van Jones, as well as his team of advocates. Additional screenings are scheduled for Wednesday at the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago as well as the Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh on Saturday.


Kramer says the reason he and his brother wanted to tell this story was because they have a deep concern for those affected injustice. "There was a strong desire to try and tell some kind of story about people who are trying to fight against these incredible odds," Kramer says.


The Department of Justice, which runs the federal prison system, is standing in the way of fully implementing the First Step Act, Osler believes.


Even though the law is almost four years old, inmates still are struggling to get their “good time” credits accounted for. Many of them have accumulated more credit than they needed to in order to earn a release, said Osler.


In a recent interview, new federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters told Government Executive that, "While there might have been bumps along the way, the agency has been working really hard to ensure that [First Step Act] implementation happens both at headquarters and in the institutions."


Pat Nolan, a former California legislator, politician and conservative activist, spoke about his experience working with people with liberal views. "What I've learned is you look for what you have in common, and then work from there," Nolan says, "and you don't try to convince them or proselytize them." You have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish, and people have to know they can trust you."


When The First Step Act was first being implemented, prison officials adopted a risk assessment tool called PATTERN. “It turned out to be super racist,” said Osler, adding that “70 percent of the black people in prison turned out to be medium or high risk, which was much higher than the white population.”


John Fabricius, a representative of Dream.org, said the Arizona Department of Corrections houses an overrepresentation of black people. “We have a system that has marginalized communities and put them in our prisons costing us as taxpayers,” said Fabricius. He said the prison system has devalued our education system, health care, and infrastructure. “All of that is adversely impacted because of the money that we spend.”


When asked about pending legislation in Congress that would make the sentencing system more equitable, Osler said that the Equal Act would make a difference in seeking clemency. “We have to remember that it takes a really short moment to make things bad. It takes a long time to make them good,” he said.


The Equal Act would eliminate the longtime federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine.


“Some of us refer to it as the last step act, unfortunately,” said Osler, “but hopefully it won’t be.”

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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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