The First Step Act would expand job training and other programming aimed at reducing recidivism rates among federal prisoners. It also expands early-release programs and modifies sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, to more equitably punish drug offenders.
But the legislation falls short of benchmarks set by a more expansive overhaul proposed in Congress during Barack Obama’s presidency and of the kinds of changes sought by some liberal and conservative activists targeting mass incarceration.
A look at the bill text provides some more insight.
The main idea behind the bill is a buzzword we've heard a lot in the last few years: evidence-based recidivism reduction. The idea is to develop programs (and provide grants) for risk and needs assessments of federal prisoners, which would predict the recidivism risk of every inmate and then match him or her with evidence-based programs that address that particular person's needs. These could include visits, institutional transfers, more opportunities to use the commissary service or even email, and other incentive. The most notable of these, perhaps, is time credits attached to the programs, which can be credited toward early release. The usual exceptions apply: As with the Obama-era reforms, these privileges and options will be available to low-level, nonviolent inmates, and not to "non-eligible" inmates, which committed violence offenses.
In short, this is a clear sequel to the trends I pointed out in Cheap on Crime. Effectiveness and efficiency are explicit criteria for the programs; the bill passes with bipartisan support; and the bill applies to the usual clientele of humonetarian reform, i.e., nonviolent, low-level inmates.
The background to the First Step Act is indicative of the price we have to pay for bipartisan reform. Kamala Harris referred to this as a "compromise of a compromise," which reminded me of the kind of discussion we had whenever I presented Cheap on Crime to a new audience. How much do we compromise or give up in order to get something? In the Trump Era, this means that bills of this kind are going to carry far less impact than their Obama-era predecessors, who were themselves products of compromise.