In a year of seemingly endless bipartisan divide, we have been gifted—just in time for Christmas—a comprehensive bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. Is this a true Christmas miracle? The government may not be able to decide where to come up with $5 billion for a border wall and just shut down, but it has decided some changes need to be made to our current criminal justice system.
In case you haven’t heard, the bill, called the First Step Act, expands in-prison and post-release employment programming, includes components related to alternatives to prison for low-risk prisoners such as home confinement, prohibits restraints on pregnant prisoners, and mandates evidence-based treatment for opioid and heroin abuse, among others.
The bill also revises the Controlled Substances Act’s harsh drug penalties, including a lowering of the “three strikes” rule for drug felons that had sent them to prison for life but now maxes out at 25 years, and it changes the way that prior felony convictions can be used to worsen a sentence. No longer can the government consider any “felony drug offense,” which could be simple possession of a controlled substance; now that prior conviction must be “a serious drug felony or serious violent felony,” and the bill also broadens a judge’s discretion. (Holliday, 2018).
The First Step Act also makes important changes to the practice of “stacking” charges, making an offender serve consecutive rather than concurrent prison sentences, for crimes involving guns and drugs. For those 2,600 federal prisoners spending this holiday season behind bars for a drug conviction involving crack cocaine, the First Step Act makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, which eliminated the disparity in crack v. cocaine sentences and may see release for those individuals affected before the new law.
The rest of the components of the First Step Act, however, do not apply retroactively (other than in regard to crack v. cocaine sentencing). To truly see a reduction in our incarceration numbers, these reforms would need to be applied retroactively and expanded to impact not only drug offenders.
As our nation takes its First Step toward a more “just” criminal justice system, law enforcement will be out in full swing this Christmas Eve and throughout the week here in the Valley and around the state. Please enjoy the holidays safely and responsibly. Count your blessings, tip your glass, and always know your rights!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from our family to yours!
Charlotte Resing, How the First Step Act Moves Criminal Justice Reform Forward, ACLU (Dec. 3, 2018) https://www.aclu.org/blog/smart-justice/mass-incarceration/how-first-step-act-moves-criminal-justice-reform-forward
Erin McCarthy Holliday, President Trump Signs Criminal Justice Reform First Step Act into Law, Jurist (Dec. 21, 2018) https://www.jurist.org/news/2018/12/president-trump-signs-criminal-justice-reform-first-step-act-into-law/
Ray Stern, Here’s Where Metro Phoenix Cops Will Be Waiting for You During the Holidays, Phoenix New Times (Nov. 21, 2018) https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/metro-phoenix-cops-ready-to-ruin-holidays-for-dui-drivers-11042503