What’s this FIRST STEP business?
On December 21, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person or “FIRST STEP” Act, aiming to address issues in the sentencing and reentry of federal offenders. 149 pages and too-many-to-count words long, in six chapters it outlines new mandatory minimums for certain offenses; the mechanisms for calculation and shortening of eligible cases; and mandates the award of good time for certain offenders making use of rehabilitative classes and resources, among other actions.
It’s long and the language arcane and legalistic. Lucky for you, I’ve read it all and translated it from lawyers’ speak to plain English so you can understand it and put the fam and the homies on.
Whom does it affect?
The FIRST STEP Act only applies to federal offenders and inmates. If you or a loved one have or had state cases or are serving time in a state facility — e.g. the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ); the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC); or the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) — this law does not apply to you (although the reforms in the Act was culled from reforms already taking place on the state level.)
Not all federal offenders are eligible for some of its provisions, however. Prisoners serving time for arson; assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers using a deadly or dangerous weapon; domestic violence cases involving serious bodily injury and/or choking; and manufacture or distribution of heroin and methamphetamine cases where the offender was an “organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor” — among many others — are not eligible for some provisions of the Act. Noncitizens on whom there is a final order of removal are also ineligible.
What does it do?
It does the most. The most to be done to federal sentencing in quite some time and the most important task of lowering mandatory minimums for repeat offenders in drug cases: from 20 to 15 years after the offender has one prior conviction and from life to 25 years where the offender has two prior convictions for a “serious drug felony” or “serious violent felony.” This sentencing change applies to manufacture, delivery, import, export and other like cases involving heroin, marijuana, cocaine, PCP, LSD, methamphetamines, and others.
The “safety valve” provision was also expanded, opening to many previously ineligible offenders the mechanism by which federal judges might sentence an offender in a drug case to less than the mandatory minimum.
The insidious disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences is retroactively addressed, applying the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act to all “covered offenses” occurring before August 3, 2010.
Time credits for staying out of trouble while incarcerated and participating in evidence-based recidivism programs and “productive activities,” potentially shorten, substantially, the time served for some offenders, especially considering they apply retroactively. In addition to earning good time credit for days of successful participation in the programs, offenders can earn up to 510 minutes of phone or video conferencing time a month; additional time for visitation; increased commissary limits; greater access to email; and potential transfer to the offender’s preferred housing unit.
The Act also has provisions to afford prisoners the opportunity to be housed in a facility within 500 miles of their permanent primary residence; to house low-risk offenders on home confinement where practicable; to train Bureau of Prisons personnel on de-escalation techniques; provide grant funding to state and local law enforcement agencies; and develop pilot programs in mentorship of youth and service to animals.
How are the benefits realized?
The Act gives the Bureau of Prisons great discretion on the implementation and reward process in regards to the recidivism programs and time credits, so it behooves any offender to act right! Those whose drug cases are eligible for resentencing under the Fair Sentencing Act can be resentenced upon their own motion; the motion of the attorney for the Government; the motion of the Bureau of Prisons; or on the court’s own motion, provided the sentenced has not already been reduced or the reduction denied previously upon a review on the merits.
It is estimated that some 53,000 of the 181,000 inmates currently imprisoned in the federal system in the U.S. would be affected over the next ten years. Don Diva especially hopes this reform will benefit the many elders of our communities that languish in federal penitentiaries, serving 15, 20, 30 years, or life without parole for non-violent drug offenses. It is our hope that figures like Wayne “Akbar” Pray, Guy Fisher, Rudy Williams, and other good men will finally get some relief.
(This does not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss the particulars of your case.)
Matt Manning currently serves as First Assistant District Attorney in Nueces County, Texas under “El DA,” Mark Gonzalez. Prior to returning to the prosecution, he fought tirelessly for citizens accused at all levels of the state criminal justice system. He is committed solely to justice and serving #ThePeople, no matter what position he holds.