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December 21, 2018

Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Signed into Law: Signaling Huge Bipartisan Win

After an overwhelming bipartisan vote in both the House and Senate, Criminal Justice Reform legislation was signed into law by President Trump on Friday, December 21. Dubbed the First Step Act, the law addresses serious problems with federal corrections and sentencing policy and the way people re-enter society at the end of their sentence. 

Representing over seven years of work from both chambers and both sides of the aisle, The Act received renewed energy when the White House made it a signature issue. It even garnered celebrity attention when Kim Kardashian-West advocated directly to the Executive branch back in September.

The Act will make immediate impacts on the prison system, such as directing the Bureau of Prisons to implement and expand recidivism-reduction programs for inmates. These programs allow eligible prisoners to earn credits toward alternative custody arrangements as they approach the end of their sentences.

Research shows that access to employment is a leading factor in whether a person commits another crime in the future. So, before passage, Congress added language to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which supports research, counseling, as well as jobs and housing assistance to help those leaving prison make successful transitions to productive lives in their communities. In addition, prisoners would have more employment opportunities available to them while incarcerated, including training programs for youth mentorship and the training and therapy of rescue dogs.

The Act draws a line at certain crimes, however, and excludes from programs those prisoners serving time for certain criminal activities including murder, sexual exploitation of children, child pornography, espionage, or trafficking of Fentanyl, among others.

Jared Kushner said of the people affected by the law, "We were their lobbyists."

Jared Kushner

Signing Ceremony in Oval Office

The Act addresses sentencing provisions, as well, by narrowing the scope of mandatory minimums for the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals. It expands the existing “safety valve” that allows judges to use discretion in sentencing lower-level nonviolent offenders. The Act also takes previous offenders into account by ensuring the retroactive application of provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – this reduced disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Act serves as a relief for a large number who feel some provisions of their sentencing continued punishing them, long after they completed their required penalties.

In addition, the First Step Act even includes provisions to increase the use and transparency of compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners. Other provisions would prevent the use of restraints on prisoners throughout pregnancy and postpartum recovery and would impose limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.

The ABA has lobbied for years for core provisions of the First Step Act, including in its December 12th letters to House and Senate leadership signed by President Robert Carlson. The ABA recognizes there is more work to be done in the criminal justice arena, but this bill is an important “first step” in the process.

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