The criminal justice reform proposal known as the First Step Act can claim a remarkably broad range of supporters, including President Donald Trump, key Republican and Democratic members of Congress, the Fraternal Order of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union. However, one of the few remaining opponents of the bill, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has characterized it as a “jailbreak that would endanger communities.”
Such rhetoric may stoke fears about armies of violent criminals being released to prey on society, but in truth the First Step Act applies to a remarkably small and overwhelmingly nonviolent segment of the U.S. prison population.
The most important — and least understood — fact about any congressional sentencing reform legislation is that it only touches the federal system, which is a small part of the country’s overall criminal justice system.
The United States imprisons a staggering 1.5 million people, only one-eighth of whom (12.6 percent) are in federal prisons. Because violent crimes such as homicide and rape are almost always charged and prosecuted at the state level, the proportion of all violent prisoners who are in federal prisons is even smaller (1.8 percent). The narrowly focused First Step Act thus carries no risk of releasing an avalanche of violent offenders on communities — even abolishing the entire federal prison system outright wouldn’t do that. The provisions of the First Step Act that make the largest number of prisoners eligible for early release are also narrow in scope. The act clarifies that prisoners can get up to 54 days off their sentences each year for “good time” credits earned by following prison rules and participating in rehabilitation programs. That law has been on the books for some time but has been interpreted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to impose a 47-day limit. If implemented retroactively, this reform would free perhaps 4,000 federal prisoners. A different part of the act would make the 2010 reduction of the powder vs. crack cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, reducing the sentences of another 2,500 or so inmates.
If those numbers sound large, consider that more than 1,700 people leave US prisons every single day. The First Step Act would be equivalent to having about three or four extra days of prison release during the year that the law passes, with even smaller effects from then forward. And almost none of the inmates released early would have committed violent crimes.
In short, the law is a worthy reform of modest scope certainly to be welcomed and not at all to be feared.