More than 3,000 nonviolent offenders are set to be released from prison on Friday thanks to the criminal justice reform bill passed last year.
The First Step Act was passed in 2018 and took aim at the harsh crime stance of the 1980s and 90s, which added to a bloated prison system by instituting mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other nonviolent offenses.
The Wall Street Journal profiled Derrick Walker, who has spent the past 13 years in prison on a mandatory life sentence. Walker plead guilty in 2006 to possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He had two prior drug convictions and was sentenced to life in prison as part of a mandatory sentencing policy.
On Friday, he will walk out of prison along with around 3,100 others.
The Journal reported that more “than 1,690 federal inmates have qualified for release under the resentencing provisions of the law, and nearly 1,100 have already walked free.”
Many of those were, like Walker, sentenced for crack cocaine, which carried a stiffer penalty than powder cocaine. Crack was used more prevalently by African-Americans while whites mostly used the power.
As the Journal reported, congress passed a bill in 2010 to reduce the disparity between black and white offenders using the same basic drug, but it was not retroactive, so people like Walker weren’t helped. The First Step Act changed that. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that, under the new law, inmates who qualify for sentencing reduction have seen their sentences reduced by an average of 73 months – or about six years.
Further, the Journal reported, the First Step Act made significant expansions to job training programs that could help cut back on recidivism.
“Department officials on Friday will unveil a centerpiece of the law, a risk and needs assessment through which federal inmates will be evaluated to see what programs and treatments could help reduce their risk of reoffending. Those who successfully complete programs can earn credits that will expedite their release,” the Journal reported.
The First Step Act was touted by President Donald Trump at his State of the Union earlier this year. He even invited Matthew Charles, the first beneficiary of the new law. Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1996 for drug charges. The Tennessean reported that he found God in prison, taught GED classes to other inmates and became a law clerk while still in prison. He received a shortened sentence in 2015 and was released. Even though he did not commit another crime, an appeals court overruled the ruling that released him and ordered him back to prison. The First Step Act released him again – this time permanently.
The First Step Act only applies to federal prisoners, and those charged with high-level offenses don’t qualify for sentencing reduction.