A still from "Last Days of Solitary."

Landmark Criminal Justice Bill Clears Congress, Heads to Trump’s Desk

December 20, 2018
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by Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Just moments before Congress grinds to a halt, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the most significant reforms to federal prison and sentencing laws in more than two decades. The bill, which cleared the House 358-36 after passing the Senate earlier this week, is a rare bipartisan victory in an era of deep political division.

Known as the First Step Act, the landmark bill shortens mandatory minimum sentencing laws, expands rehabilitation programs in an effort to curb recidivism, and rolls back drug laws widely seen as unfair from the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 90s.

An unlikely band of supporters from both the left and right helped push the bill towards the finish line. Champions include Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the American Civil Liberties Union, the Koch brothers-backed Right on Crime and evangelical Christian groups.

“Did I hear the word bipartisan?” Donald Trump said to laughter and applause when he announced his support of the First Step Act last month. “That’s a nice word.”

The measures in the proposed legislation would only affect federal prisons — which account for a small fraction of the nation’s total inmate population. There are more than 2 million people in state and local jails compared to the roughly 180,800 people in federal prisons, according to government data. The majority of federal inmates are white and serving time for drug offenses.

The First Step Act relaxes tough sentencing requirements for certain categories of offenders. This is seen by reform advocates as a welcome reprieve for a country that has the highest prison population in the world, even as overall crime and murder rates in the U.S. remain at historic lows.

The proposed legislation allows federal judges to bypass mandatory minimum sentences for those with limited criminal histories. Only nonviolent drug offenders with no prior criminal background are now eligible for this so-called safety valve. This broadening of categories is expected to impact about 2,000 inmates per year, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The bill also softens the severity of some automatic sentences. A serious drug or violent felony will result in a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years as opposed to 20. The three-strikes law, which hands down a mandatory life sentence to someone with two or more prior convictions for severe drug or violent offenses, will instead receive a 25-year term.

The First Step Act also addresses the disparity in sentencing lengths between crack and powder cocaine. For decades, crack cocaine offenses were handled more harshly than those involving powder cocaine, as the result of a ratio now widely seen as unwarranted and racially-biased. People who were imprisoned for crack-related offenses before 2010 will now be able to have their cases reheard under the more equitable terms set forth in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

More than 2,600 people will benefit from this change, according to a federal agency’s numbers. The overwhelming majority of people in federal prisons on crack charges are black.

The bill would also allow many prisoners the opportunity to shave time off their sentences by earning more credits for a clean disciplinary record. This change would be applied retroactively, which would result in the freeing of prisoners as soon as the bill passes.

The First Step Act also aims to improve conditions behind bars by increasing the amount of educational and vocational programs offered, ensuring people are held in prisons closer to their homes, and eliminating the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners.

Despite a few fierce critics of the bill, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who believes the proposed changes are “misguided and dangerous,” the First Step Act is expected to clear Donald Trump’s desk.

“I’ll be waiting with a pen,” said the president.

FRONTLINE has been following the fallout of mass incarceration for years. States — which shoulder much of the burden — have been grappling with ways to address their bulging inmate populations. As the landmark prison reform bill makes its way to the president’s desk, learn more about how some states have been experimenting with cutting-edge criminal justice reforms with these two recent documentaries.

Life on Parole (2017)

With unique access, go inside an effort in Connecticut to change the way parole works and reduce the number of people returning to prison. In collaboration with The New York Times, the film follows four former prisoners as they navigate the challenges of their first year on parole.

Prison State (2014)

There are roughly 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., with a disproportionate number coming from a few city neighborhoods. More than two years in the making, Prison State takes an intimate look at the cycle of incarceration in America, and one state’s effort to reverse the trend.

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