Author:Ciaramella, C.J.

IN THE WANING days of the 115th Congress, the first major criminal justice bill in eight years was passed. The FIRST STEP Act was both a modest achievement in terms of the bill's scope and a monumental victory merely because Congress did something. But what does the legislation that President Donald Trump signed actually say?

* It requires the Bureau of Prisons to house inmates within 500 driving miles of their home when possible. Regular contact with family can be a significant factor in reducing recidivism among inmates, but families often have to travel long distances at great expense to see incarcerated loved ones.

* It increases the amount of "good time" credits inmates can earn toward their release by avoiding disciplinary infractions, to a maximum of 54 days a year.

* It increases the amount of "earned time" credit inmates can amass by participating in job training and rehabilitative programs. The credits count toward early release to a halfway house or home confinement.

* It bans the shackling of pregnant female inmates. The Bureau of Prisons amended its policies in 2008 to forbid the practice, but there was no federal law against it. It's already illegal in most states, although incarcerated women still report being shackled while in labor, even where it's supposedly outlawed.

The FIRST STEP Act also made four changes to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws--the first major reductions since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which shrank the notorious sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

* It reduces the mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders under a draconian "three strikes" law. A third drug offense will now carry 25 years in federal prison rather than life. A second drug offense will be punishable by 15 years. Both state and federal felony drug offenses qualify a defendant for the enhancement.

* It eliminates a provision that allowed gun charges to be "stacked" against drug offenders, which prosecutors have, in the past, used to add decades to sentences.

* It expands judges' discretion under the so-called "safety valve" to depart from federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain low-level offenders.

* It makes the reductions to crack cocaine sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act apply retroactively. This will result in reduced sentences for approximately 3,000 crack cocaine offenders currently in federal prison.

Critics said the bill didn't go far enough. To placate...

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