President Donald Trump has signed a landmark piece of criminal justice reform legislation called the First Step Act. The President tweeted, “Congress just passed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill known as the #FirstStepAct. Congratulations! This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody. When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!”
The new law is indeed a step in the right direction for American criminal justice. The First Step Act changes federal law (obviously, individual state criminal justice laws are not altered). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that approximately 53,000 of the 181,000 federal inmates would be affected by the law over the next 10 years. Among the changes, the law reduces the disparity between powder and crack cocaine at sentencing (a disparity heavily criticized for its impact on people of color). It also loosens mandatory minimum sentence guidelines and increases “safety valve” protections for those convicted of certain crimes. The new law directs the Bureau of Prisons to house inmates within 500 miles of their home, expands on prison employment programs, and expands job training and rehabilitation programs so inmates can be better prepared to reenter society. By taking advantage of these programs, inmates can earn additional “good time credits” which would shorten their overall sentences.
The law also encourages the use of home confinement for low-risk offenders. The First Step Act also ends automatic life sentences for “three strikes and you’re out” felony drug offenders with the new mandatory penalty for a third felony drug offense decreased to 25 years.
The First Step Act should indeed be considered a first step for bipartisan criminal justice reform. Critics complain about portions of the bill. Without doubt, there are many issues related to reentry after incarceration and reducing recidivism that are not addressed by this law. For example, the First Step Act does not address the critical need for federal criminal record sealing, which would give ex-offenders who have successfully committed themselves to a life free from crime the opportunity to remove their long-ago criminal history from public view, such as by prospective employers. Although 41 states have some form of record sealing or expungement, there is currently no federal law that allows a person convicted of a crime to petition the court to have his or her record sealed. A federal conviction is basically a lifetime “Scarlet Letter” no matter what else a person accomplishes in the years that follow. Many people who commit crimes suffer from drug or alcohol addiction or mental health issues, sometimes for a limited period of time. A person who successfully resolves these problems should not be forever penalized. Record sealing increases employment, which reduces recidivism. It also removes the stigma associated with a criminal conviction for people who have moved on to a law-abiding life.
The First Step Act is an encouraging example that even in this age of divisive politics, politicians from both sides of the aisle can still find common ground. Of course, much more needs to be done to fix our broken criminal justice system. It is hoped that in the near future, this spirit of cooperation will address the need for further criminal justice reform, including criminal record sealing. If you are a loved one needs help with a matter related to state or federal criminal law, feel free to contact our firm at (516) 218-5131.