The First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform law passed in Congress last year, was the catalyst for the release of more than 3,100 formerly incarcerated individuals from federal custody on July 19. The majority of those individuals are leaving halfway houses after being convicted of drug-related crimes. This law includes other progress such as outlawing putting shackles on pregnant inmates, outlawing putting juveniles in solitary confinement, and it aims to focus on improving prison conditions and supporting those incarcerated people who pose a low safety risk to society in exiting the prison system by connecting them with the needed resources to reduce recidivism. The law is set to reverse many of the harsh laws created during the War on Drugs era of the 1980s and 1990s.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, stated in a press release, “Every day of freedom is important. The good time credit will benefit more than 150,000 people in federal prison today and many more going forward. We’re happy for the families who get to welcome home their loved ones a few weeks or months early.”
Implementation of the law also includes funding, with $75 million reallocated from other Bureau of Prisons programs to the First Step Act, but additional funding will be needed to further implement facets of the program like rehabilitation and trauma recovery services to help ensure the success of the law and those individuals being released. Some concerns exist as to where the $75 million will come from and what current programs may be affected by the reallocation of funds.
The First Step Act includes plans for a screening tool to help determine recidivism risk factors in incarcerated people who may be able to be safely released from prison. The goal of this tool would also be to match incarcerated individuals with programs, like drug and alcohol treatment, to help reduce their identified risk factors. Matthew Charles served 22 years in prison and was released last week as a result of the First Step Act. In a piece he wrote for the New York Post he said, “Right now there are millions of Americans like me waiting for their second chance. We need Congress to pass more criminal-justice reforms. We need to work together and take the next step and offer so our fellow Americans their shot at a better life.” Charles had more than a decade left on his sentence before the First Step Act granted his release.
While Friday brought freedom to some of the 3,100 individuals unfortunately about one third were released from federal custody to state custody, or released to immigration court proceedings and are now facing immigration detention and deportation. Although many questions remain about the First Step Act, NPR reports, “…groups that work with inmates and their families said that whatever its failings, the First Step Act is making a difference.”
Have any criminal justice reform laws been passed in your state in recent few years? How have they impacted your community?