The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, was approved yesterday in the House by a vote of 360-59. Among other things, FIRST STEP would
- allow inmates to accrue up to 54 days of good time credit a year. The changes would apply retroactively, resulting in the release of approximately 4,000 federal inmates, according to the U.S. Justice Action Network, a criminal justice advocacy group.
- ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, including while giving birth and postpartum. It would also require Bureau of Prison facilities to provide female hygiene products free of charge and increase available phone and in-person visitations for new mothers.
- require the Bureau of Prisons to place inmates in facilities within 500 driving miles of their families.
- increase the use of compassionate release for terminally ill inmates, and require new reporting on how many applications for compassionate release are accepted or denied.
The bill has sharply divided criminal reform advocates. Some, such as Rep. Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill’s co-sponsor, say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. “Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates’ quality of life,” Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.
Others contend the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes. Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) have written a joint letter saying that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms.