You remember the high-profile and much-lauded First Step Act of 2018 if you follow criminal law news stories and developments.
And here’s why: The federal legislation that scored broad-based bipartisan endorsement on Capitol Hill and was ultimately signed into law by then-President Trump ushered in with considerable fanfare. Criminal law reformers and commentators strongly applauded both its thrust and timing, seeing it as the harbinger of greatly needed systemic change.
And it was unquestionably a positive development. “It made some important changes” to America’s justice system, notes a recent national article, with the promise of more to come.
Strides, yes, but ultimately just baby steps
As stressed above, First Step was a salutary and well-meant initiative aimed at injecting material reform into the justice realm.
The above-cited article points to a notable problem with the legislation, though, namely its limited scope. First Step’s focus “was sentencing reform for federal prisons, which only hold a small fraction of American inmates.”
Promise delayed: SCOTUS deals reform “a gutting blow”
One reason for the reformist hype surrounding First Step owed to what the above source terms its “path to retroactive sentencing adjustment for some people serving unduly onerous prison terms.” Such outcomes have been especially common for select drug offenders.
First Step was envisioned by many as an antidote to such results, for example, a low-level and nonviolent defendant serving a decades-long prison sentence for drug possession.
And indeed, the statutory law has made equitable adjustments in some cases – but not uniformly so. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme issued a ruling just last month that ensures a continuation of First Step’s limited utility.
SCOTUS held this: Retroactive sentencing readjustment in a crack cocaine case is possible only if an offender “was convicted of a crack offense that triggered a mandatory minimum sentence.”
Many defendants of course receive uncommonly harsh sentencing outcomes even when a mandatory minimum did not feature in their case. The result of the high court’s decision is an unequal provision of justice: Some individuals charged with a crime receive a reprieve, while other similar defendants remain ineligible for help.
Critics reasonably point to the inequity in outcomes regarding similar offenses. They underscore First Step’s disparity-tied flaw and argue that the time for second-step reform is now.