The FIRST STEP Act Has Reduced Prison Terms for More Than 7,000 People
The Republican National Convention last month highlighted Donald Trump’s support for the FIRST STEP Act, a 2018 law that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, called “the most significant criminal justice reform of our generation.” A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) describes what that reform has accomplished so far: During the first full calendar year in which the law applied, it resulted in shorter sentences for more than 4,000 drug offenders. While that is nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans, including more than 68,000 drug offenders, behind bars.
The FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform with the biggest impact in 2019, measured by the number of people affected, was retroactive application of the lighter crack cocaine penalties that Congress approved in 2010. Congress raised the mandatory-minimum weight thresholds, moving them closer to the thresholds for cocaine powder while maintaining a still irrational and unjust 18-to-1 ratio (down from 100 to 1). In 2019, the USSC report says, 2,387 already imprisoned crack offenders qualified for shorter sentences under the FIRST STEP Act’s retroactivity provision. The average reduction was 71 months, making the average sentence for this group 187 months (more than 15 years), down from 258 months (more than 21 years).
The second most significant FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform in 2019 (again, measured by the number of people affected), was its widening of the “safety valve” that allows low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums they otherwise would receive. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants benefited from that expansion. The average sentence for that group was 53 months (more than four years), compared to 36 months (three years) for defendants who already were eligible for the safety valve. The average sentence for federal defendants who receive mandatory minimums, based on data for fiscal year 2016, is 138 months, or more than 11 years.
Two other FIRST STEP Act sente
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