Research: First Step opens new doors out of prison

Print Article

It’s probably not on most Americans’ radars, but something momentous is happening: 2,200 non-violent federal inmates will leave prison earlier than expected this Friday.

That’s just a sample. Another 1,100 have already been released under a related re-evaluation process, and thousands more are expected to follow.

The group exodus is triggered by the new First Step Act. Its 2013 and 2015 predecessors failed to pass in Congress, but under the Trump administration the measure was approved last year.

More than merely a flexible sentencing program, the “The Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act” (federal laws often sacrifice awkward titles for catchy acronyms) is essentially a rollback from mandatory and harsh sentencings. Created during the “war on drugs” of the 1980s and ’90s, these zero-tolerance policies filled prisons beyond capacity with drug- and other non-violent offenders.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, more than two-thirds of federal prisoners serving a life sentence have been convicted of non-violent crimes.

Over time, escalating prison costs, racial disparities, and difficulties faced by prison officials resulted in an unusual bipartisan agreement that, at the very least, reform is necessary. As reported by USA Today, the prison system costs one-quarter of the Department of Justice’s $28 billion budget. According to the World Prison Brief database, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The First Step Act gives judges more leeway in sentencing and includes rehabilitation, employment assistance, and creative work programs to help released inmates — many of them drug offenders with underlying life problems — productively re-enter society and reduce recidivism. Getting a sustainable job is difficult with a record, so released inmates facing old personal and new financial challenges currently tend to just bounce back into the system, at considerable public expense.

The Act aims to improve that picture starting July 19 by:

• Giving federal judges more sentencing flexibility and reducing minimums, including the mandatory life sentence of the three-strikes-rule (now lowered to 25 years)

• Overhauling the rules for inmate evaluations to speed the path toward release

• Releasing certain currently incarcerated offenders based on a re-calculation of credit for good behavior

• Easing the release of seriously ill inmates

• Reconciling sentencing disparities between selling crack vs. powdered cocaine

• Rehabilitative and work training programs both in and out of prison

Excluded from most reforms, at least so far, are those convicted of crimes involving terrorism, human trafficking, sex crimes, weapons-related offenses, some fraud, and drug trafficking.

The First Step Act is just that — a first step. While reform efforts tend to focus on federal laws, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, most people who are incarcerated are in state-controlled prisons. State and county-level reform efforts and creative alternatives are perhaps even more important.

Beyond human compassion, why should the average person who’s never had friend or family in the judicial system care? One, that’s a smaller pool than you’d think, ever since the war on drugs. Two, the ripple effects in society and the economy reach far and wide. The more individuals leading healthier, more productive, law-abiding lives, the brighter is the picture for the whole community.


Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network with degrees in international studies and law. Contact her at

Print Article

Read More Sholeh Patrick

Research: Art’s value includes some pain

November 21, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press Since cavemen painted on rock, art has been essential to mankind. As common as man’s challenges, joys, and inclinations is his persistent need to express himself. That need is not mere chronicling. ...


Read More

Opinion: Keeping up with the Joneses

November 16, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press The lawyer-turned-writer is no rarity as bestselling authors John Grisham, Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent), Meg Gardiner (the Evan Delaney Series), and Erle Gardner (Perry Mason) well illustrate. So...


Read More

Research: Retirement, happiness change source of self-esteem

November 14, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press They say a key to happiness is living in the moment, to fret less about the past or future, to simply be “fully present.” True enough, yet it’s human nature — perhaps a survival tool — to plan. Perh...


Read More

Opinion: In Italy, an unsettling question of toilet seats

November 12, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press With as many approaches to life as humans living it, experiencing those differences is the best thing about travel. And probably what they mean when they say international experiences “broaden the mi...


Read More

Contact Us

(208) 664-8176
215 N. Second St
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814

©2019 The Coeur d'Alene Press Terms of Use Privacy Policy