Many of the changes adopted by the Senate and embraced by Mr. Trump are modeled after successful initiatives at the state level intended to reduce the costs and improve the outcomes of the criminal justice system. Congress’s action would not directly affect state prisons, where the majority of the country’s offenders are incarcerated, but proponents believe they could spur more states to change their laws.
Once signed into law, thousands of inmates will be eligible for immediate sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs. Going forward, the effect will grow as thousands of new offenders receive reduced sentences and enter a changed prison system.
“We’re not just talking about money. We’re talking about human potential,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said Tuesday during debate on the Senate floor. “We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities.”
Broadly speaking, the First Step Act makes heavy investments in a package of incentives and new programs intended to improve prison conditions and better prepare low-risk prisoners for re-entry into their communities.
By participating in the programs, eligible prisoners can earn time credits to reduce their sentence or enter “prerelease custody,” such as home confinement. In recent weeks, conservative senators and law enforcement groups successfully pushed to limit some violent offenders from eligibility, including fentanyl traffickers.
The legislation would also prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates and the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in almost all cases. The Bureau of Prisons would be required to place prisoners in facilities close to their homes, if possible.
In all, it includes four changes to federal sentencing laws. One would shorten mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, including lowering the mandatory “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years. Another would provide judges greater liberty to use so-called safety valves to go around mandatory minimums in some cases. The bill would also clarify that the so-called stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted.