Recent news has been abuzz with the January 3, 2019, criminal justice reform law that was signed off on, known as the First Step Act. For a long while, it seemed as if the proposed law would not be passed, but in the end, was signed off on thanks to a federal judge’s ruling. The bipartisan legislation aims to decrease mass incarceration at the federal level, which could impact roughly 181,000 people. While that is only a small subset of the 2.1 million people in all U.S. prisons, it is a step in the right direction.
On smaller scales, there has also been a change in how many criminal lawyers — especially at the district attorney level — treat criminal behavior and the laws that govern any fallout. In the past, taking the “tough on crime” stance against crime was a popular platform for those wanting to progress their criminal lawyer careers. However, now, many criminal defense attorneys are actually leaning away from such ideas and are instead focusing on reform. Their shifting ideas about whether or not incarceration is the best treatment for crime is echoed in the people who support them with votes, earning them their district attorney seats.
Below are the top six changes in criminal law at the federal level, as well as possible criminal law reforms at the district levels, that are going to impact the U.S. in 2019.
1. Reduced Recidivism Rates
On the large scale, the First Step Act’s goal is to incarcerate fewer people, doing so by retroactively releasing those pardoned by new laws. However, the First Step Act also provides educational opportunities for inmates to learn and change their patterns of thinking so that they do not end up committing more crime and ending right back in prison. Education is key.
On a smaller scale, Wesley Bell, the St. Louis County, Missouri, district attorney won his seat on the platform that incarceration for nonviolent offenders only increases the recidivism rate, as reported in a New York Times interview. Instead, he wants to focus on helping those who are poor and rehabilitating those with drug or mental health issues instead of incarcerating them, breaking the recidivism cycle.
2. Reduced Drug Offense Guidelines
At the federal level, the First Step Act has made the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. This means that the First Step Act’s criminal law can apply to crimes which happened in the past. Eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for simple cocaine possession and reduced statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses are both included. This new federal guideline means that many prisoners can be released immediately if their crimes fall into those two categories. It is estimated to impact nearly 2,600 federal inmates. The change will also impact how crack cocaine offenses are handled when processing current and future drug offenders.
At a local level, district attorney Scott Miles of Chesterfield County, Virginia, has promised to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors for those charged with simple possession. Instead of focusing on incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, he wants to focus on rebuilding the community.
3. Altered Three-Strike Rule and Minimum Sentencing
The First Step Act has also impacted mandatory minimum sentencing. It has long been a problem where judges have had to assign life sentences as the criminal law demands, even if the situation may require otherwise. The First Step Act eases that mandatory minimum sentencing at the federal level. It expands the “safety valve” judges can use to avoid assigning mandatory minimum sentences.
The First Step Act also relaxed the three strikes rule, so people with three or more convictions automatically get 25 years in prison, instead of the previous life in prison. Aimed at reducing prison sentences in the future, these changes also impact criminal law processing in 2019 and beyond.
4. Less Lower Level Crime Prosecution
With the leaning away from “tough on crime” mindsets, many district attorneys are championing less low-level crime prosecution. The solution to those crimes, they say, lies in a more holistic approach, not incarceration.
For example, district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins, has been noted saying “we need to be smart on crime rather than tough on crime.” Her solutions include declining prosecution for 15 lower level crimes including trespassing, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, minor alcohol possession, and drug possession, amongst others. In an article in The Washington Post, she said that “accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration.” Instead, she favors mandatory community service or education programs instead of incarceration.
5. Altered Marijuana Possession Laws
There have been quite a few criminal law alterations at the statewide and district levels. For instance, district attorney John Creuzot of Dallas County, Texas, has spoken about reassessing the appropriateness of low-level marijuana arrests. District attorney Wesley Bell of St. Louis County, Missouri, has also recently announced that marijuana possession under 100 grams will no longer be prosecuted. Larry Krasner, district attorney for Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, echoes this sentiment by endorsing no prosecution for marijuana possession. Meanwhile, at the broader level, various states are reassessing the decriminalization of marijuana altogether.
6. Increased Community-Building Reform
The First Step Act allows inmates to accumulate earned time credits for successfully completing rehabilitative or vocational programs. Those credits allow for early release in some circumstances. After release, they could transition to home confinement or halfway houses. This increases the chance that the released person will become a functioning member of the community again and lessens the chance of recidivism.
At local levels, there is an increased focus on community reform as well. For instance, district attorney John Creuzot from Dallas County, Texas, intends to train and motivate up and coming prosecutors to distinguish violent from non-violent criminals, encourage bail reforms, improve diversion programs and increase efforts to release innocent people from prison. Wesley Bell, district attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri wants to increase programs that give defendants a way to avoid jail by paying restitution or completing community service or treatment programs. He believes drug addictions should be treated with rehabilitation, not incarceration. It seems that at both the federal and local levels, community-based reform and rehabilitation is becoming the answer.
Liz S. Coyle is the Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law. She also serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department. She is responsible for internal and external communications for the firm.