Major Changes in Criminal Justice Reform – The First Step Act

Credit: Joyce N. Boghosian

In today’s societal climate, it is rare to find real unity of any sort. Recently, however, a bill was passed bringing together a great majority of political leaders. Criminal justice reform is of major interest to more than those with families in targeted neighborhoods and those with disadvantaged backgrounds. Interestingly enough, it is also of interest to people such as White House senior adviser, Jared Kushner – who had personal experiences with the justice system when dealing with his father’s incarceration. These personal experiences lead him to support the First Step Act. For some a shocking follow up: President Trump, who did not campaign on prison reform, also swiftly supported the bill.

The First Step Act has been regarded with profound significance as it contains the “most substantial changes in a generation” to criminal justice reform. However, as one of the worlds greatest mass incarcerators, will Louisiana feel the significance of its effects?

The state of Louisiana does not have a Federal Prison; the First Step Act applies to federal prisoners, which is approximately 10% of America’s prison population. Nevertheless, the bill was supported by both republicans and democrats, a bipartisan spirit with a great potential to influence the need for criminal justice reform on the state and local level.

Will Snowden, director of the New Orleans office of Vera Institute of Justice, speaks on the importance of the First Step Act.

“The First Step Act is true to its name. It is certainly the first step of many that we need on the federal level for criminal justice reform. We think back to 1994, the crime bill and how it was largely mimicked by state – particularly with the adoption of lengthy mandatory minimums. We know the harms that came from the 1994 crime bill and how that lead to a rise in mass incarceration across the country in both state and federal prisons. The First Step Act marks a great effort in the direction of reversing some of the harm that we know has been in place since that crime bill in 1994.” 

Snowden on The First Step Act and its potential impact on the State of Louisiana:

“I think the impact that could come for the state is the continual reminder that reform is needed and that it is actually a bipartisan issue. Since Governor John Bel Edwards has been in office he has done a great job of organizing intention around criminal justice reform. We have started to see the benefits of reform in our own state. I think Governor John Bel Edwards has been very clear that his focus on criminal justice reform has been largely three fold. The first was to reduce our prison population. The second was to reduce the amount of money that we are spending on incarceration. The third was to make it safer. On a local level, that intention is consistent with the First Step Act. I think the First Step Act is a great bill to be passed, but there are some things that we do have concerns about. But I am happy that we are seeing this momentum building around criminal justice reform.”

Snowden on opponents who believe the First Step Act lets criminals off the hook easy and early:

“I think we need to be very cautious of a mindset that believes locking people up actually keeps us safer. We know that that simply doesn’t work. In Louisiana, we have been locking people up and we have been known as the prison capital of the world for decades but we are not the safest place in the world. If we want to have conversations about what actual purpose prisons are supposed to play, that is different than what [opposers] are saying. We think that prison is supposed to be punishment, and that is part of it. But is that the only thing? We want these folks returning home as better individuals. If we aren’t paying attention to the types of programs that are needed that the First Step Act addresses and provides for evidence based programming. It is absolutely critical to ensure that when these individuals do come home we are not increasing recidivism rates and they are actually coming home more equipped to be contributing members of society.”

The following is a few of the positive reforms that the First Step Act provides:

  • The bill will release nearly 3,000 people who are currently incarcerated due to serving harsh and outdated sentences for crack cocaine charges.
  • The bill reduces the “three-strike penalty” from life behind bars to 25 years. With this change, a judge is able to use discretion and sentence a person below what has been previously required as a minimum.
  • First Step Act helps inmates earn reduced sentences for good behavior. The previous good time credit calculation will be adjusted from 47 days in one year to 54 days in one year. This adjustment is retroactive.
  • The bill requires the Bureau of Prisons to assign prisoners to facilities that are within 500 driving miles of their family. Currently, prisoners are taken to facilities that are thousands of miles away, which makes visitation nearly impossible.
  • The bill provides better treatment to women. Previously, women may have had to choose between being able to pay for a phone call to family members or buying pads and tampons – feminine hygiene products are now free.  Additionally, First Step Act bans the shackling of women who are pregnant in labor.
  • The bill heavily supports programming that aims to reduce recidivism. First Step Act will allocate hundreds of millions of dollars for programming and classes that will better help the successful transition of inmates back into society.

Nicole Nixon is a dedicated wife and mother who values leadership and business. Motivated by her husband and her son, she is vested in the empowerment and positive commercialization of black men in America. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out her piece “A Mother’s Cry,” or her other articles here.

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