Research: First Step opens new doors out of prison

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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

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