What is the First Step Act?

The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act or First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump at the end of 2018. It reforms the federal prison system and seeks to reduce recidivism.

The First Step Act affects federal sentencing in a number of ways. For one, it reduces mandatory minimums for drug sentences enhanced for prior convictions. Those who have one prior conviction and are convicted under 21 U.S.C. § 841 (b)(1)(A) for possessing a controlled substance with the intent to distribute now face 15 years to life in prison. This is five years less than the previous mandatory minimum in this situation. With two priors, you will be facing 25 years to life. A prior conviction for a “felony drug offense” used to trigger these enhanced sentences. The First Step Act has changed “felony drug offense” to “serious drug felony” and requires that the prior conviction resulted in a sentence of at least twelve months in prison. The First Step Act adopted the definition of “serious drug felony” from the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The First Step Act has also expanded “safety valve” criteria. The safety valve is a mechanism that allows a judge to sentence a client below the mandatory minimum for a drug offense if the client makes a complete and truthful statement about his or her conduct, and if there were no guns or violence involved in the offense. Previously, in order to qualify for safety valve relief, you had to have no criminal history. Now you can qualify if you have very limited criminal history. Notably, the United States Sentencing Guidelines have not been updated to reflect this change.

The First Step Act also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Fair Sentencing Act dealt with the crack/cocaine disparity in sentencing. The First Step Act allows prisoners sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act to petition the court for an individualized review of their case.

The First Step Act also expands good-time credit to 54 days and creates earned time credits. It also expands compassionate release eligibility.

The First Step Act brings many long overdue reforms to our nation’s federal prison system as well as some of our most ineffective federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Read the full text of the Act here.