The First Step Act: What the Criminal Justice Reform Bill Means After Major Senate Vote

Al Drago/File Photo/Reuters

The U.S. Senate passed a criminal justice reform bill Tuesday night in an 87-12 vote, making it one of the biggest changes to the criminal justice system in some time.

This bill, touted as the “First Step Act,” will allow thousands of federal inmates an opportunity to receive an early release from prison or a lessened prison sentence. Statistically, this affects about 181,000 imprisoned people out of a population of 2.1 million in the U.S. jail and prison systems.

However, as presently constructed, this bill will only impact the federal criminal justice system directly. This means it will not address state or local laws and will still leave thousands of other inmates behind.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a version of this bill with no mention of a shortened prison sentence.

However, it did include a way to encourage inmates to partake in rehabilitation programs to reduce their time behind bars. Senate Democrats noticed the limited nature of those provisions and added changes to lighten prison sentences.

As the bill neared approval, it faced criticism from various Republicans who believed this bill was just a ticket for violent criminals and drug offenders to get an early release. According to, only some inmates will benefit from these new additions.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told IJR in November that the bill, which “started as an effort at prison reform […] has turned into a sentencing leniency bill.”

“I can support prison reform. I think we should help prisoners get back on their feet. I can’t support releasing serious, violent, repeat felons from prisons,” the Republican senator added.

The proposed system would implement an algorithm to determine what inmates are allowed to cash in earned time credits. Also, it will exclude inmates who are deemed higher risk from cashing in but not from earning credits completely. Overall, the goal is to prioritize the individuals inside that need it most.

Supporters of the bill say that the reasoning behind calling this bill the “first step” stems from it being the first step Congress has taken in years to finally address some persistent issues. This would include drug offenses, marijuana offenses, reduction of long-standing prison sentences, and unfair targeting of people of color.

This bill may let more federal inmates out earlier than usual, but it won’t be a huge impact in the grand scheme of things. Since it is dealing exclusively with the federal system, it won’t generate massive amounts of people getting released on a consistent basis.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 87 percent of U.S. prison inmates are held in state facilities, which overwhelmingly outnumbers the number of people put away in federal prisons.

If this bill gets another approval from the House, it will head to President Donald Trump’s desk for him to sign.

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Phyllis Softa

THIS is what we should be talking about today. Bipartisan support for criminal justice.! Trump & Kushner got done what Congress has tried to achieve for years. Criminal Justice reform is a positive for Trump’s legacy. Every time Trump has an accomplishment, he manages to step on his good press. He could have announced the Syria withdraw next week or next year. Mattis wouldn’t announce his protest resignation until after the positive coverage. Trump needs to work on his timing.


Individual states can ‘reform’ their own criminal justice systems as they see fit. It isn’t proper, and probably unconstitutional, for Congress to delve into that matter.





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