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Congress passes—and President Trump signs—bipartisan prison reform legislation.

On December 21, President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law, the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.The White House, “Trump Secures Landmark Legislation,” 2018. The law received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, passing the House with a 358-36 vote and the Senate 87-12.FIRST STEP Act, S.756, 115th Congress (2018), (actions overview).

The legislation makes some modest changes to federal sentencing laws by, for example, reducing or allowing more flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences for certain people in drug trafficking cases, requiring everyone serving a federal prison sentence to be classified under a new risk-and-needs assessment system, allowing some of them to earn “good time credits” to take time off their prison terms by completing expanded “recidivism-reduction” programs, and requiring other changes to federal prison policies and practices.FIRST STEP Act, S.756, 115th Congress (2018). Also see Lopez, “The First Step Act, Congress’s Criminal Justice Reform Bill, Explained,” 2018.

The FIRST STEP Act contains some vital federal prison reforms that codify some existing, but unevenly implemented, policies, like banning shackles on incarcerated people who are pregnant, giving birth, or immediately postpartum; increasing access to menstrual supplies; banning the use of restrictive housing (solitary confinement) for most incarcerated minors; and requiring the federal government to track the use of restrictive housing for all people incarcerated in federal prisons.FIRST STEP Act, S.756, 115th Congress (2018). Also see Gina Martinez, “The Bipartisan Criminal-Justice Bill Will Affect Thousands of Prisoners. Here's How Their Lives Will Change,” Time, December 20, 2018. But while some reformers have hailed the legislation as a positive move, most also say it could do more.For reactions to the FIRST STEP Act, see generally Vera Institute of Justice, “Statement from the Vera Institute of Justice on the FIRST STEP Act,” 2018; ACLU, “ACLU Praises Senate Passage of FIRST STEP Act,” 2018; Lau, “Historic Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Signed into Law,” 2018; and Gotsch, “Commentary: Progress on Justice Reform Closer,” 2018. The risk-assessment and program-based reforms are structured similarly to other reforms that have been found to disproportionately benefit incarcerated white people, and people with many categories of convictions—as well as immigrants—are excluded from the good time credits provisions.Martinez, “The Bipartisan Criminal-Justice Bill,” 2018; and Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu, and Lauren Kirchner, “Machine Bias,” ProPublica, May 23, 2016. And buried among the reforms are provisions expanding prison labor programs, but doing nothing about the wages paid to incarcerated people—which range from $0.23 to $1.15 per hour.Steve Horn, “First Step Act Passes – Includes Federal Sentencing, Prison Reforms,” Prison Legal News, January 8, 2019. Still the FIRST STEP Act is just that: an important initial bipartisan step that acknowledges the importance of prison reform.