When the FIRST STEP Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, few predicted it would fare well in the Senate.German Lopez, “Congress’s Prison Reform Bill, Explained,” Vox, May 22, 2018.
The Jared Kushner-backed bill lacked the sentencing reforms that most reformers saw as an essential priority. Instead, the House bill focused on only prison reform. It created a controversial new risk-and-needs assessment classification system for everyone serving a federal prison sentence. Individuals’ classifications from this system, then, would govern how much they benefited from sentence reductions tied to their completion of recidivism-reduction programs such as behavioral health treatment, education, and other kinds of programs.Lopez, “Congress’s Prison Reform Bill, Explained,” 2018. But in November, reviving hopes for long-stalled federal criminal justice reform, the Senate’s lead sponsors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act introduced a new proposal that added a few modest sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act.U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Senators Unveil Revised Bipartisan Prison, Sentencing Legislation,” press release (Washington, DC: Senate Committee on the Judiciary, November 15, 2018). Also see Jon Schuppe, “'The Push Starts Now': With Trump's Support, Prison Reform Finally Has A Shot in Congress,” NBC News, August 20, 2018.
These included retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine; reductions from life to 25 years and 20 years to 15 years for certain third and second strike offenses, respectively; ending the stacking of multiple sentencing enhancements for possession or use of a firearm during commission of a federal crime; and giving judges additional discretion in bypassing mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions. After a bipartisan year-end push, the act was signed into law by President Trump on December 21.FIRST STEP Act, S.756, 115th Congress (2018), (actions overview).
But while the President and Congress touted the FIRST STEP Act as a significant move toward reform, most reformers are calling it just that: a “first step.”See for example Vera Institute of Justice, “Statement from the Vera Institute of Justice on the FIRST STEP Act,” 2018; ACLU, “ACLU Praises Senate Passage of FIRST STEP Act,” 2018; Lau, “Historic Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Signed into Law,” 2018; and Gotsch, “Commentary: Progress on Justice Reform Closer,” 2018.
JustLeadershipUSA went so far as to issue a November statement opposing the Senate version, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights had issued a similar statement while the legislation was initially pending in the House, though the organization ultimately took a supportive, yet still critical, stance on the bill that became law.