By Sandy K. Johnson

The First Step Act that became law in December 2018 is the first major prison reform legislation in a decade. What happens next?

Congress was motivated to act because of the colossal growth of U.S. incarceration. The federal prison population peaked at 220,000 in 2013 with a Federal Bureau of Prisons budget of almost $7.5 billion in 2016. Nationwide, 2.3 million people are confined in jails, state prisons and federal facilities. Millions more are under correctional supervision like parole and probation.

Nancy La Vigne, vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute, walked National Press Foundation fellows through the provisions of the law. It revisits mandatory minimum sentences that put tens of thousands of drug offenders behind bars and incentivizes prisoners to participate in programs and treatments to earn credits for earlier release, among other things.

One of the first concrete outcomes came in July 2019, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons released more than 3,000 people based on a fresh calculation of good behavior and time served.

The law authorizes the bureau to conduct a risk assessment of every inmate in federal custody. Those at low or minimum risk will have the opportunity to participate in programs and rehabilitation that could result in time off their sentence and hopefully reduce recidivism. (Two-thirds of released inmates end up back in custody within three years.)

Sentencing reforms in the law also reduce mandatory minimum penalties that almost doubled the time served by prisoners and give judges more discretion to deviate from sentencing guidelines.

There is also a provision for “compassionate release,” which could be defined as prisoners with serious health problems or inmates who are old and infirm. La Vigne said prison reform advocates are “trying to push to get more people released through this provision” by stretching the definition.

La Vigne said there are reasons to be concerned and even cynical about the new law. The federal corrections system is opaque with “very little oversight or accountability,” creating a challenge to measuring implementation.