Ja'Ron K. Smith: First Step Act is about prison for violent offenders, second chances to those who earn them

Americans want safer streets. While 40,000 people are released from federal prison every year, unfortunately about half of them return to crime within five years. For a long time, the status quo in our prisons has done little to change that – it has essentially encouraged people to re-offend when they get out of prison. The First Step Act of 2018 – championed and then signed by President Trump with bipartisan support in Congress – is about changing the status quo and keeping Americans safe.

The focus of the First Step Act is lowering crime and rethinking our approach to prison, so that when those who are incarcerated ultimately return home, they will be productive, law-abiding members of our communities.

It’s about developing and implementing a system in which nonviolent prisoners are given the incentives to improve their behavior and ultimately improve themselves, gaining the education and tools they will need to succeed when they eventually do leave prison.


At both federal and state prisons, “good time” credits are an especially effective incentive. This incentive offers inmates the opportunity to be released slightly earlier than originally scheduled for exhibiting years of good conduct. It’s a proven technique that encourages safer prisons, as well as a safer society when these individuals come home. Additionally, years of good conduct make it more likely that this pattern of good behavior will continue when the prisoner re-enters society.

It’s unfortunate that critics of the First Step Act have mischaracterized the law’s treatment of serious violent offenders – there are no such offenders coming home who wouldn’t be coming home anyway a few weeks later. The First Step Act allows individuals who have been in prison for a long time, and who have consistently demonstrated good behavior during that time, to come home a little bit sooner. It’s about using incentives in prison to get better behavior and better outcomes – safer communities – when people get out of prison.

In the legislation that originally created the opportunity for inmates to earn “good time” credit, Congress intended for prisoners to earn up to 54 days of credit per year if they consistently followed the rules, but the Bureau of Prisons calculated “good time” credit earned in a way that capped the number at 47 days. The First Step Act clarified the law to allow those who have consistently exhibited positive conduct to obtain the time credits they’ve earned. Thus, the prisoners currently being released under the First Step Act were already scheduled to be released this year.


From fundamentally rethinking the experience of prison, to improving incentives for good conduct, criminal justice reform lowers crime rates, lowers imprisonment rates, and saves tax dollars. From 2008 to 2016, 35 states enacted common-sense criminal justice reform that cut both imprisonment rates and crime at the same time.

When those with criminal records have paid their debt to society and obtain training and jobs, they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. That keeps our communities safer. We are better off when the formerly incarcerated can contribute as workers, taxpayers, and law-abiding citizens.