Sentencing Reform

The FIRST STEP Act Has Reduced Prison Terms for More Than 7,000 People

While that's nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars.

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The Republican National Convention last month highlighted Donald Trump's support for the FIRST STEP Act, a 2018 law that Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, called "the most significant criminal justice reform of our generation." A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) describes what that reform has accomplished so far: During the first full calendar year in which the law applied, it resulted in shorter sentences for more than 4,000 drug offenders. While that is nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans, including more than 68,000 drug offenders, behind bars.

The FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform with the biggest impact in 2019, measured by the number of people affected, was retroactive application of the lighter crack cocaine penalties that Congress approved in 2010. Congress raised the mandatory-minimum weight thresholds, moving them closer to the thresholds for cocaine powder while maintaining a still irrational and unjust 18-to-1 ratio (down from 100 to 1). In 2019, the USSC report says, 2,387 already imprisoned crack offenders qualified for shorter sentences under the FIRST STEP Act's retroactivity provision. The average reduction was 71 months, making the average sentence for this group 187 months (more than 15 years), down from 258 months (more than 21 years).

The second most significant FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform in 2019 (again, measured by the number of people affected), was its widening of the "safety valve" that allows low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums they otherwise would receive. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants benefited from that expansion in 2019. The average sentence for that group was 53 months (more than four years), compared to 36 months (three years) for defendants who already were eligible for the safety valve. The average sentence for federal defendants who receive mandatory minimums, based on data for fiscal year 2016, is 138 months, or more than 11 years.

Two other FIRST STEP Act sentencing provisions had a much smaller impact. The law narrowed the criteria for the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders, which reduced the number of defendants eligible for those sentences. The enhanced penalties applied to 849 drug offenders in 2019, 152 fewer than in fiscal year 2018. The FIRST STEP Act also reduced the enhanced penalties, from 20 to 15 years for defendants with one prior conviction and from life to 25 years for defendants with two prior convictions. In 2019, the USSC says, 219 drug offenders benefited from the first reduction, while 21 benefited from the second reduction.

Even rarer were situations where defendants received shorter sentences because of the FIRST STEP Act's changes to a law that imposes escalating mandatory minimums on drug offenders who have firearms. The USSC says 205 defendants benefited from that provision in 2019, receiving sentences of five, seven, or 10 years rather than the 25-year sentence that previously would have applied.

The FIRST STEP Act was supposed to facilitate compassionate release of elderly or ailing prisoners. In 2019, 145 prisoners were granted compassionate release, five times the number in fiscal year 2018.

The law also expanded the "good time" credits that allow prisoners to be released early. Although the USSC report does not analyze the impact of that provision, the Justice Department reported last year that more than 3,100 prisoners had benefited from it.

By the end of last year, then, more than 7,000 people either had been released from prison earlier than they otherwise would have been or were serving sentences that will end sooner than would have been the case before the FIRST STEP Act took effect. That is a meaningful accomplishment. Thousands of people will spend less time behind bars, and more time with their families, friends, and neighbors, thanks to this law, and that number will rise each year.

At the same time, the law's beneficiaries at this point represent less than 5 percent of the federal prison population, less than 11 percent of drug offenders in federal prison, and less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases each year. And while a crack offender who serves 15 years rather than 21 years in prison surely is better off, the reduced penalty is still draconian, especially if you think peaceful transactions involving arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants should not be treated as crimes to begin with.

Even leaving aside the moral bankruptcy of drug prohibition, the FIRST STEP Act fell far short of reforms that have gained bipartisan support in Congress. In addition to making shorter crack sentences retroactive and widening the safety valve, the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D–Ill.) and Mike Lee (R–Utah) in 2014, would have cut mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half. That bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with the support of three Republicans and 10 Democrats. The Justice Safety Valve Act, which Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Pat Leahy (D–Vt.) introduced around the same time, would have gone further, making mandatory minimums effectively optional by allowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic opponent in this fall's presidential election, likewise favors abolishing mandatory minimums, along with the distinction between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine (both of which he supported as a senator).

As its name indicates, the FIRST STEP Act, which passed the House and the Senate with overwhelming support, was not meant to be the last word on criminal justice reform. "We're just getting started," Ivanka Trump promised at the Republican convention. Now is the time to spell out what that means.

NEXT: This Labor Day, Police and Teachers Unions Are Making a Bad Year Worse

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  1. Next step, stop sending drug users to prison. If they commit other crimes, prosecute them for that.

    1. Are you that troll at got dragged in the last thread?

      **looks**

      Oh damn it got worse since I last looked.

      1. If you think he lost that argument, it says more about you than him.

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  2. Kamala can correct these errors, and return the miscreants to prison, where she thinks all black men that cannot advance her career belong.

    1. Stop regurgitating the propaganda that Tulsi Gabbard’s Russian handlers fed her. Harris was, in fact, a #ProgressiveProsecutor.

      1. She learned under Willie Brown, after all.

        1. Yes, quite literally. Heels Up Harris learned under Willie Brown.

          1. It was a long hard lesson and he demonstrated it repeatedly, but she took Willy’s point in the end.

  3. “a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars”

    Absolutely outrageous. Just think of all those highly skilled laborers wasting their prime years behind bars. Let ’em all out so they can work for Charles Koch, I say.

    #EmptyThePrisons

    1. But they are already here. Shouldn’t we be pushing foreign governments to send their prisoners here?

      1. Still waiting.

      2. Shouldn’t we be pushing foreign governments to send their prisoners here?
        Those are the most highly prized immigrants of all!

        1. They certainly have skills.

    2. Yep! Open Borders and Open Prisons! A winner for any election year!

      1. +1
        You beat OpenBordersLiberal-tarian to that one!

  4. “it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars”

    4,000 out of 150,000 isn’t bad for an act that is only a year and a half old.

    1. 150,000 is the total federal count. 68,000 are drug offenders.

      1. Hey listen we appreciate that you want to feel involved sock, but you have proven you’re not smart or honest enough to converse on this.

        Maybe try DailyKos? It caters to low info types like you.

        1. Rat’s been here for year. Who are you?

          1. *years

            Damnit, Reason. Edit buttons are not rocket surgery.

  5. A modest accomplishment for Trump to be sure. But that’s one more modest accomplishment than Biden, in yet another category.

    1. Biden and Kamala are the law and order candidates while Trump’s soft on crime.

      1. …unless of course you’re almost Peacefully Protesting™ and then Biden and Kamala are Respecting Your Rights while Trump is basically Hitler.

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    3. An incredible accomplishment when put in context.

      1. That’s not the end of the context. The nonsense of including every drug related crime into one single category of “drug offense” is ridiculous by any standard. A lot of libertarians fall into this trap of lumping it all together despite agreeing that certain more serious offenses should be penalized as is or even more heavily. Yet they still lump them together because it is perceived to benefit the larger cause.

        A few categories that most people can agree shouldn’t be changed are selling narcotics laced with poisons, selling or providing to minors, using drugs to facilitate other crimes like human trafficking or child porn, and operating a motor vehicle under the influence. Yeah, these are also called “drug offenders”. I don’t know what percentage these would make up of the total, but they aren’t insubstantial.

        Additionally, while I fully support decriminalizing the use of all drugs, I have far less patience with the smugglers of narcotics. Fuck em. Anyone bringing in volumes needs to be breaking rocks the rest of their life.

        1. That’s like saying: “I fully support decriminalizing ‘johns’ using prostitutes but their pimps, Fuck em.” You support the consumer, not the merchant who wouldn’t exist without demand.

  6. the moral bankruptcy of drug prohibition

    You would think that people sitting in prison for decades would eventually come to this conclusion. Very few do. It’s a strange paradox. Whereas put people in prison for ‘antisemitism’ and hooo-weee.

  7. “While that’s nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars.”

    smh.

    Who wrote this?

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  10. I don’t want to say I’m a Cassandra, but I have been expressing concern that the pendulum would make another violent swing from overly-punitive to soft-on-crime – and based on recent experiences, it seems that such has in fact occurred.

    Or maybe they’ll try to combine the worst of both worlds – unduly harsh for some offenders, unduly lenient for others.

    1. Unduly lenient for rioters, unduly harsh for non-mask-wearers.
      Aren’t we already at this demoncrap party’s dystopia.

  11. Tell me again why I don’t want these people in prison? Drug laws are like a civil society compatibility test. Maybe you think drug laws are dumb, but if you think that means you don’t have to obey them, and you think committing felonies is just fine, then you fail to have what it takes to live in a civil society.

    People willing to commit drug felonies are people willing to commit other felonies. Law enforcement knows this, and the fact is that with the material evidence being carried around on the offenders persons all the time, they’re easier to convict people for.

    If you don’t like being in jail for 20 years on a “victimless” drug offense, don’t buy or sell drugs.

    1. Fuck off, slaver.

      1. How long did it take you to think up that retort?

    2. There was a time when segregation was mandated with criminal penalties. Anyone defying segregation was clearly a bad person who was willing to commit other felonies. They failed the test.

      1. Now we have the 13% of the population that used to be segregated committing 55% of the homicides. Not an improvement. I guess all those dead people are just the eggs that had to be broken to make you multi-cultural omelet.

        1. So you are pro-segregation? Perhaps slavery is more your taste. Should we lock up that 13% of the population to prevent some of them from committing crimes?

    3. “…you fail to have what it takes to live in a civil society.” As in a moral society? Is it moral to violate rights to placate social consensus? Is it moral to initiate violence against those who exercise rights? Is it moral to insist “the law is the law” when the law is immoral, irrational, unjust? Is it moral to equate “law” with morality?
      Laws are dictates based on authority to rule by violence granted by some to an elite. That authority is not binding on dissenters. Neither is it binding on those who come to their senses and reclaim their sovereignty.

    4. Moral equivalent of jailing speeders as a prophylactic? Let’s just make it illegal to do anything you personally wouldn’t do so we can identify miscreants sooner. You clearly haven’t thought this through.

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