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BWSUSAIRR Reviews of the 2018 First Step Act
Review By Elder Willie Simpson, National Director
2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act (The First Step Act
The United States' prison population has reached 2.2 million people and has increased 500 percent over the past 40 years without a corresponding increase in crime. The United States incarcerates more people pre capital than any other nation.
Nearly two-thirds of inmates in America's jails are awaiting trial.
Deliberations about criminal justice reform are gaining momentum in Congress in 2018. As state actions over the last decade have lowered prison populations and stabilized corrections budgets, Congress is considering where on the federal level it's feasible to follow suit.
State legislation on the front end of the prison system has focused on adjusting mandatory minimum sentences on drug penalty thresholds and felony thresholds. The goal is to preserve prison space for more dangerous offenders, while redirecting others to diversions programs community supervision or treatment.
States have also considered the back end, aiming in part to reduce recidivism rates by providing offenders with educational and job-training services and the skills to be successful after release.
Given that related cost to families, states and the federal government reached, by some estimates $182 billion dollars annually, it's no surprise that legislatures in nearly every state have passed laws to reduce prison populations and spending in recent years.
On December 18th 2018, the Criminal Justice Reform Act (First Step Act) was passed. The United States Senate passed it 87-12 and the United States House of Representatives passed it 358-36.
The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act (First Step Act) is the most significant effort that the federal government will take to date to reduce federal prison populations after decades and decades of doing the opposite and trying to increase our prison populations. Of course, this bill is not going to end mass incarceration, but it is a significant and large step forward.
The legislation would expand reentry and job training opportunities for federal inmates and require them to be housed within 500 miles of their families. The version passed by the Senate also added four changes to federal sentencing law that would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, expand judges' discretion under the so-called safety valve, and make the reductions to crack cocaine sentences under Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 apply retroactively. The latter provision will result in reduced sentences for approximately 3,000 crack cocaine offenders in federal prisons.
The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act (First Step Act) would also ban the shackling of pregnant female inmates in federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons amended its policies in 2008 to bar the practice except in cases of flight risks, but there is no federal law against it.
The idea that a woman needs to be shackled in labor and delivery as though she is going to escape while delivering a child is ridiculous, brutal, and a human rights abuse. "Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said on the House floor prior to the vote.
Sitting in the House gallery above, watching debate over the bill, was Pamela Winn, a Georgia women who suffered a miscarriage while pregnant and shackled in a federal prison.
The legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act (First Step Act) gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Essentially, the law allows thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future.
Review By Denise Ragland
The Criminal Justice Act of 2018 (The First Step Act) was created in an effort to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety, and save money for taxpayers by diverting people that would otherwise be sent to prison, to have the opportunity for treatment and/or similar programs alike. The bill would eliminate a handful of mandatory minimum sentences for what lawmakers described as "low-level drug offenses." This would include first and second offenses for cocaine possession.
While the legislative committee did not raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 18 to 19, it did remove juvenile court jurisdiction over minors aged 7 through 11 years old, preventing anyone under the age of 12 from being prosecuted criminally in the courts. Some crimes committed by offenders up to age 21, would be eligible for expungement under the bill. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Essentially, the law allows thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future.
Major Provisions of what the First Step Act does:
- The law makes retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This will affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates.
- The law takes several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It expands the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It eases a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It restricts the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences. All of these changes will lead to shorter prison sentences in the future.
- The law increases “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The law increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change applies retroactively, which will allow some prisoners — as many as 4,000, to qualify for an earlier release fairly soon.
- This allows inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits will allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term.
- It has been proven that Educational Programs do reduce recidivism.
- Not every inmate would benefit from the changes. The system will use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits, with inmates deemed higher risk excluded from cashing in, although not from earning the credits (which they could then cash in if their risk level is reduced).
- But algorithms can perpetuate racial and class disparities that are already deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. For instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes. The law also excludes certain inmates from earning credits, such as undocumented immigrants and people who are convicted of high-level offenses.
1. Fentanyl And Carfentanil Trafficking
While the Legislature is easing up on some drug-related mandatory minimums, they are getting tougher when it comes to fentanyl and carfentanil trafficking. The synthetic opioids can be lethal, even in small amounts, and are contributing to the recent uptick in opioid overdose deaths. Legislatures are pushing hard for tougher penalties that address this issue. Prosecutors could bring charges against offenders who traffic in any amount of fentanyl and carfentanil. Those convicted of trafficking in the deadly substances would face a much tougher sentences. Tennessee as well as most States have created a Task Force to combat the Opioid crisis here in Tennessee.
- Carfentanil is an analog of fentanyl, which is a potent opioid pain medication. Fentanyl is about 80 times more potent than morphine; Carfentanil is about 10,000 times stronger than morphine. In the United States, Carfentanil is classified as a Schedule II narcotic, meaning it has high potential for abuse and dependency.
- Currently, Carfentanil is marketed as Wildnil, and it’s used as a general anesthetic for large animals, such as rhinos and elephants. Though it does have its medical uses in large animals, medical professionals and scientists can mostly agree that the chemical is simply too potent for medical uses in humans, and its use in humans is rare.
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