On November 14, 2018, criminal justice and prison reform advocates finally heard what they had wanted to hear for almost a year: President Donald Trump is “thrilled to announce his support” for the bipartisan First Step Act criminal justice reform legislation.
With President Trump’s support of this legislation the last true obstacle to the First Step Act passing Congress is no longer standing in the way. All signs from key Congressional leaders including Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan indicate that the First Step Act will be signed into law before the end of 2018.
As the first significant piece of meaningful federal criminal justice reform legislation to become law in almost ten years since the Second Chance Act, the First Step Act is going to make big changes immediately in ways that affect the lives of inmates and their families. What will the First Step Act mean in reality?
We break down the First Step Act into plain language to answer some of the most pressing questions about this law for our readers.
Q: Is the First Step Act already a law? If not, can changes be made to the bill before it goes into effect?
A: No, the First Step Act is still pending in Congress. This means the bill must first receive approval from at least 51 U.S. Senators before moving forward. Once the First Step Act receives approval from a majority of the Senate, it must be returned to the House for a final vote before it can be sent to the President for his signature.
Until the legislation is finalized, changes to the bill COULD be made.
Q: What do you mean? The House of Representatives already voted to approve the First Step Act in the Spring so once it passes the Senate it should go straight to the President to sign into law.
A: Unfortunately, no. Because the Senate has made significant revisions to First Step since it passed the House of Representatives, the bill must return to the House of Representatives for a final vote after the Senate acts. Once the House votes on the revised version of the First Step Act, it will then go to President Trump to sign into law.
Q: How did the Senate version of the First Step Act change?
A: At the 5,000-foot level, the Senate version of the First Step Act contains four key sentencing-related provisions not in the House version. These include 924(c) stacking reform, 841/851 sentencing enhancement modifications, expansion of the “safety valve” under sec. 3553(f), and retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA).
Q: What do the First Step Act's sentencing reforms mean in practice?
A: It’s a bit complicated, so if you are interested in more information, I suggest that you look over the detailed legislative analysis which we will be sending out. For now, here are the highlights:
1) the bill would clarify that the 924(c) stacking of sentences for possessing a firearm while committing a different crime (say, possessing drugs for distribution) should only apply to defendants who have previous 924(c) convictions. And that “conviction” be actually final and not from the same case for it to qualify.
2) the bill would allow judges much more latitude to avoid otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentences using the “safety valve” provisions;
3) the bill would change the 841/851 sentencing enhancements commonly known as “three strikes” penalties to change the mandatory minimums in some cases from the current (life imprisonment) to the new floor (25 years); and
4) the bill would retroactively extend the reduction in sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenders which Obama championed back in 2010. This change could affect THOUSANDS of federal inmates currently serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine crimes which were more harshly punished in the past than powder-cocaine crimes.
Q: What else does the First Step Act criminal justice reform legislation do?
A: There are a number of changes to prisoner incentives, compassionate release, and other BOP issues which we have previously described on sentencing.net and you can read about at https://sentencing.net/legislation/first-step-act-federal-prison-reform.
Q: Come on, man! Tell me what the biggest changes are!
A: Not yet! First, we are going to dive into the actual text of the First Step Act. We will go through a series of these reforms in detail over the coming days.
For the latest developments on this bill, read our First Step Act Prison Reform Bill Update article.