6 Ways Federal Criminal Justice Reform May Impact Criminal Law

On January 3, 2019, the criminal justice reform law, known as the First Step Act, was signed off on thanks to a federal judge’s ruling. The bipartisan legislature is aimed at easing mass incarceration at the federal level. It impacts those in the federal system, which is about 181,000 incarcerated people. That is only a small subset of the 2.1 million people in all U.S. prisons but is an important step nonetheless.

1. Reduced Recidivism Rates

As noted by the National Institute of Justice in 2016, prison can actually worsen recidivism rates, not help them. The First Step Act is aimed at incarcerating less people, retroactively releasing those that are imprisoned while new laws pardon them and providing educational opportunities for inmates to learn and change their patterns of thinking — all to avoid having them commit more crime and end up back where they started from.

2. Reduced Crack Offense Guidelines

The First Step Act makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. This means that the act’s criminal law can apply to crimes which happened in the past. Reduced statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses and an eliminated mandatory minimum sentence for simple cocaine possession are included. This new guideline means that many prisoners can be released if their crime falls under this category. According to the Marshall Project, that could impact nearly 2,600 federal inmates. It also means that criminal law towards crack cocaine offenses has new guidelines which need to be taken into account when processing drug offenders.

3. Altered Safety Valve and Three-Strikes Rule

Mandatory minimum sentencing has long been a problem where judges have had to assign life sentences per criminal law, even if situations required otherwise. The First Step Act eases that mandatory minimum sentencing. It expands the safety valve which judges can use to avoid assigning mandatory minimum sentences. The three strikes rule is also eased, so people with three or more convictions automatically get 25 years instead of life in prison. While aimed at reducing prison sentences in the future, these alterations will also change the way criminal law is processed going forward into 2019.

4. Increased Good Time Credits

The bill also increases the amount of good time credits an inmate can earn. When an inmate avoids getting any disciplinary action while in prison, they grow good time credits. Before the First Step Act, they could gain up to 47 days per year. Now, they can gain 54. This means that well-behaved inmates can cut their prison sentence by an extra week each year they’re incarcerated. Even better, this goes into practice retroactively, meaning that as many as 4,000 prisoners may qualify for immediate release.

5. Possible Earned Time Credits

Another way the First Step Act will impact a credit system is the earned time credits for incarcerated people. The bill allows inmates to accumulate earned time credits for completing vocational or rehabilitative programs. These credits, similar to good time credits, would allow for early release in some circumstances. From release, they could transition to halfway houses or home confinement, given the right number of previously earned time credits. This shows those reviewing the case that the inmate has gone through the necessary programs to hopefully prevent recidivism.

6. Problems with Credits

However, as with every change to laws, there are also instances where the system would not work in the intended ideal way. For example, the criminal law system’s algorithm determines who can cash in earned credits and when. This is meant to give inmates with lower risk a chance over higher risk inmates, prompting higher risk prisoners toward better behavior.

Yet, the downside is that that same algorithm can be used to perpetuate racial and class disparities which already exist within the criminal justice system. The algorithm may not take into account underlying factors. For example, it may not factor in the statistics that show black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated, even though they’re not more likely to commit crimes.

Furthermore, bill excludes certain inmates from earning credits — and the chance to get out of jail early — due to extenuating factors. These factors include those convicted of high-level offenses and those of undocumented immigrant status.

These changes in criminal law and federal guidelines may be difficult to understand. For help navigating these changes, or with any case of your own, contact highly qualified attorneys who specialize in criminal defense today.

Liz S. Coyle is the Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law. She also serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department. She is responsible for internal and external communications for the firm.

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