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December 21, 2020

Pondering next steps in federal sentencing reform on the second anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act

The FIRST STEP Act, which is fully titled the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, was signed by Prez Trump into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  That means today is the second anniversary of what many have rightly called the biggest federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation — while others have also rightly called this law a relatively small modification to the federal criminal justice system.  Because I consider the FIRST STEP Act a very big deal and also a very small start of needed federal sentencing reform, I am inclined to ponder today just what could and should be the next steps after the FIRST STEP.

I am not quite sure if future big federal reform bills should be called the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, but I am quite sure some of the criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62) would make a good starting point for the next Congress.  Here are just a few proposals that I would be eager to prioritize:

Mandatory Minimums: Empower judges to determine appropriate sentences, by fighting to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level and give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

Retroactive Reforms: Make all sentencing reforms retroactive to allow for individualized resentencing.

Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences, and make the change retroactive.

Bureau of Prisons Oversight: Create a Bureau of Prisons ombudsman position for people who are incarcerated and their families to make complaints and get prompt redress.

Removing barriers to reentry: Remove restrictions on access to public housing, employment, occupational licenses, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.  Create a U.S. Reentry Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of barriers to reentry, with the goal of taking executive action and proposing legislation to remove as many as possible.

Juvenile Sentencing Reform: Abolish life without parole for juveniles.

There are lots of other good ideas in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations, but I have highlighted a few proposals which would largely require action by Congress (rather than reforms that might be achieved just though executive action or other means).  I am sure readers may have other ideas for legislative sentencing reforms that the next Congress should prioritize.

Though the FIRST STEP Act is now two years old, and though I do not think it is too early to think about the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, I also think it critical that the next Congress and the Biden Adminstration keep working hard on robust application of the FIRST STEP Act.  Helpfully, the implementation picture is informed by the US Sentencing Commission's recent intricate data report (and this infographic) on “First Step Year One,” and the federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Justice have useful webpages about various other aspect of the Act.  But there is much more work still to do to ensure the FIRST STEP Act fulfills its full potential and has its maximum impact; I hope in 2021 that FIRST STEP work can move forward while another reform bill gets going.

A few of many, many prior related FIRST STEP Act posts:

December 21, 2020 at 09:38 PM | Permalink


I couldn't agree more, people are being sent away for way to many years for non-violent crimes and now it seems everyone knows or has a person they love in the system. Not sure how it happened but people received longer sentences for drugs than murderers is a sign this is a corrupt and faulty system, needs to be fixed asap and retroactively.

Posted by: Randy Cowan | Dec 21, 2020 10:22:56 PM

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