In the wake of the recent passage of the First Step Act, which was touted as “sweeping” criminal justice reform by the news media, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has released the first estimates of the Act’s effects on the current and future federal prison population. After analyzing Bureau of Prisons (BOP) statistics, not individual cases, the Report estimates that out of a total population of 180,218 federal inmates:
- 142,448 are eligible to earn increased Pre-Release Custody (“good time” credit);
- 106,114 are eligible for Risk and Needs Assessments;
- 2,660 are eligible for retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine;
- 2,045 are eligible for broadened application of the Safety Valve, which avoids mandatory minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders;
- 1,882 are eligible for the Federal prison Reentry Initiative Reauthorization, including qualifying offenders who are age 60 or older, have served two-thirds of their sentences, and were in BOP custody as of May 26, 2018;
- 57 will be eligible annually for the adjustment to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which applies to certain first-time firearms offenders sentenced for multiple firearms counts on the same day;
- 56 will be eligible annually for the lower enhanced mandatory minimums under 18 U.S.C. § 851 (the “Three Strikes” law) for second and subsequent drug offenses.
The Commission has further estimated the effects of the Act on three categories of cases:
- Enhanced mandatory minimums for second and subsequent drug offenses (“Three Strikes” law). The Act reduced the minimum for a second qualifying offense from 20 years to 15 years, and for a third or subsequent offense from life to 25 years. Enhanced mandatory minimums apply to an average 189 new cases annually. It is estimated that 56 of these cases annually will benefit going forward. The average sentence in qualifying cases, which would have been 267 months, will be an estimated 211 months. This reduction of 4 years, 8 months in predicted sentences in future cases is invaluable to inmates, as well as saving the BOP nearly $150,000 per case.
- Broadened qualifications for the Safety Valve. The Act relaxed the criteria for avoiding mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses, allowing offenders with as many as 4 criminal history points, barring a single 3-point offense or a 2-point violent offense. Of 2,260 qualifying cases annually, an estimated 2,045 will benefit going forward, with resulting sentences reduced from an average 55 months to 43 months, a reduction of one year imprisonment for the average offender.
- Clarification of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Act clarified that multiple firearms offenses sentenced on the same day do not trigger enhanced penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Of the 103 cases sentenced annually under this provision, an estimated 57 will benefit, reducing the average sentence from 624 months to 296 months. This provision provides the greatest relief, an estimated average reduction of more than 27 years per case, albeit to a relative handful of offenders annually.
These preliminary estimates support our initial assessment that, for all the fanfare surrounding enactment, the First Step Act holds out very modest relief for most inmates and significant relief for very few. (Read our prior article on the First Step Act here).
If you or a loved one are facing investigation or prosecution for federal criminal charges, you should retain an experienced criminal defense firm that is fluent in the latest developments in every aspect of the law, including sentencing.