Fewer increased penalties for recidivists were imposed during the first year of the federal First Step Act, the U.S. Sentencing Commission says in a new report.
The report suggested that the law was having its intended effect so far, but not seeing a large impact on the federal criminal justice system as a whole.
Summarizing the initial results of some of the law’s sentencing provisions, the commission said the number of federal offenders who got increased sanctions because of a record of previous offenses dropped by 15.2 percent, from 1,001 in fiscal year 2018 to 849 in the first year of First Step.
Few offenders were subject to more severe penalties because of previous convictions of “serious violent penalties,” the report said.
Of the 849 offenders subject to that provision of the law, only 36 had been convicted of one or more qualifying “serious violent felony” offenses. And only 11 were subject to enhanced penalties based on one or more convictions for crimes like weapons offenses, robbery, and aggravated assault.
Under the First Step Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, offenders were more likely to avoid a mandatory minimum penalty or get a reduction in their sentences because of the law’s expansion of eligibility for a “safety valve,” the commission said.
Of 13,138 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 41.8 percent did not get the mandatory minimum penalty, up from 35.7 percent in the year before First Step went into effect.
The law also limited “stacking” of penalties in which offenders with a second firearms offense got a 25-year prison term.
In the year before First Step, there were 117 such cases in the federal court system. Under First Step, there were only five.
The commission said that sentences of five, seven or ten years “typically replaced what would have been a 25-year penalty” before First Step.
The First Step Act allowed offenders to seek “compassionate release” from prison by going to court rather relying on the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The commission said 145 inmates were granted compassionate release in the First Step Act’s first year, a five-fold increase from the 24 granted in fiscal year 2018, before the law was in effect.
Commenting on the report, sentencing expert Douglas Berman of Ohio State University’s law school said in his Sentencing Law and Policy blog that the law’s provisions “largely achieved their intended goals and impacted a lot of cases, though they still have a relatively small impact on a massive federal criminal justice system.”
Berman noted that although the “safety valve” change helped about 1,250 additional federal drug defendants, “any system-wide benefit would seem to be largely eclipsed by the fact that the federal government brought roughly 1400 more drug cases into the federal system during First Step Year One.”
He added, “When some federal drug sentences go down slightly, but the overall number of defendants being sentenced for drug cases goes up (and especially if the federal caseload increase involves mostly lower-level offenders), it is hard to get too excited about the impact of reform.”