The First Step Act: The Embodiment of True Criminal Justice Reform – FAMM

The First Step Act: The Embodiment of True Criminal Justice Reform

In 2018, Congress passed the landmark First Step Act with bipartisan support, and President Donald Trump signed it into law on December 21, 2018. Now, almost five years later, it is clear that this important criminal justice reform legislation is an overwhelming success

However, with a presidential election on the horizon and increased social concerns with crime, the First Step Act has become an easy target for legislators and presidential candidates — with some even threatening to repeal it.

FAMM knows that for every victory, there’s a continued fight to keep that legislation in place. Below you’ll find resources, testimonies, and more proving that five years on, the First Step Act works.

The First Step Act: By the Numbers

Passage of the First Step Act has not led to increased crime. The law fixed some of the most excessive and unfair sentencing practices, increased rehabilitative programming and incentives in prisons, and reunited thousands of families.

Of the nearly 30,000 people released under the First Step Act, only 12.4% have been re-arrested or returned to federal custody. This is far lower than the general federal recidivism rate of 43%. 

Below are more numbers showing the success of the First Step Act since its passage:

29,946 – Total number of people released from federal prison to return to their families

12.4% — Recidivism rate of those released (vs. 43% for the general federal prison system)

4,226 – people receiving fairer crack cocaine sentences

7,000 – people placed in prisons closer to home so they can maintain the family ties that will help them succeed after prison

4,502 – people released for “extraordinary and compelling circumstances,” including terminal illness, under compassionate release. 2,775 of these were people released during the pandemic because of their vulnerability to COVID-19


$75 million per year through Fiscal Year 2023 – investment in more rehabilitative programming in federal prisons

35% – increase in participation in rehabilitative programming and productive activities in prisons

15 – new rehabilitative programs created in the federal prison system

30,000 – federal prison employees who have received de-escalation training to make prisons safer for everyone

The First Step Act’s reforms have made the federal justice system fairer without endangering public safety. Congress should consider expanding on these reforms in the future. Learn more here.

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The First Step Act: Why It Matters

Below are descriptions of the First Step Act’s sentencing and prison reforms, why they matter, and who they benefited.

Sentencing Reforms

  • Reducing excessive drug mandatory minimums such as mandatory life without parole sentences for certain people with three drug offense convictions to a mandatory minimum of 25 years. Prospective only. 
  • Making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, giving people serving unfair crack sentences a chance to petition courts for a fairer sentence.
  • Ending the practice of giving first-time offenders firearm enhancements designed for repeat offenders. This practice had resulted in some first-time offenders receiving decades, if not hundreds, of years in prison. Prospective only.
  • Expanding the existing “safety valve” – a mechanism that allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences under narrowly defined circumstances. Prospective only. 
  • Allowing incarcerated people to petition courts for compassionate release, a duty the Bureau of Prisons was neglecting. Compassionate release allows courts to release someone for certain defined “extraordinary and compelling reasons” – such as terminal illness – if they aren’t a threat to public safety.
  • Fixing a long-standing misreading of the law so that all incarcerated people get 54 days of good time credit per year of their sentence, rather than 47. Everyone in federal prison except lifers gets this good time credit deducted from their sentence when they go to prison. Good time credit incentivizes good behavior in prison and can be lost if the person breaks the rules. This change was made retroactive. 

Prison Reforms

  • Creating incentives to get people to participate in rehabilitative programs: more minutes for phone calls, and – for nonviolent and non-sex offenders only – the ability to serve “earned time” on home confinement or supervised release rather than in a prison, near the end of their sentences
  • Requiring that people be incarcerated no more than 500 driving miles from their home, and moved even closer if possible, so they can maintain the family ties they will need to succeed after prison
  • Banning the use of restraints during pregnancy, labor, and postpartum recovery in prison is inhumane and can endanger the health of both mother and child
  • Investing money into creating more evidence-based recidivism reduction programming in federal prisons, including drug and mental health treatment, job training, and education to help people succeed when they come home
  • Ending the use of solitary confinement for juveniles incarcerated in federal prison under most circumstances, to protect their mental health
  • Investing money into deescalation training for correctional officers, so that conflicts can be resolved peacefully with less danger for staff and incarcerated people.

The First Step Act’s reforms have made the federal justice system fairer without endangering public safety. Congress should consider expanding on these reforms in the future. Learn more here.

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Voices of the First Step Act

Below are stories from formerly incarcerated individuals and their loved ones who have benefited from the First Step Act.

Robert Shipp

Robert Shipp (left)


Robert Shipp works now for a global organization called Career Violence Global. He mentors and trains youth, violence interrupters, outreach workers and others on how to avoid the path he walked 26 years ago. That was when he was sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was reduced to 30 years a while back, and then he got further relief from the First Step Act. Talking about the opportunity for living a life of redemption now, Robert says, “I feel like Lazarus from the Bible. Now I can really make a difference in people’s lives.” 

Read Robert’s Story

Cecelia Cardenas

Sen. Cory Booker (left) with Cecilia, when she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee


Because of the First Step Act, the earned time credits that Cecilia gained in prison meant that she was released one month early from her ten-year sentence. That may not seem like a lot – but for her it meant that she could finally start making her dreams come true. The whole time she was in prison, she worked toward those credits by taking programming inside that prepared her to hit the ground running and start her own accounting firm almost as soon as she was released. Her firm has one employee and college students onboard as interns.

Read Cecelia’s Story

Kenny Kubinski

Kenny Kubinski (second from right) with his family


Vietnam veteran Kenny Kubinski was released after more than 25 years inside through compassionate release under the First Step Act. That early release meant that he got to spend the last two weeks of his brother’s life with him before his brother died of ALS. Since his release, Kenny and his son Adam started an excavating business that’s going extremely well, and he adores spending time with his grandkids.

Read Kenny’s Story

Gerald Tarboro

Gerald Tarboro (left)


The First Step Act meant that Gerald Tarboro got to celebrate his fiancee’s birthday in person with her — four years earlier than expected because of the part of the First Step Act that made the crack sentencing reform retroactive. He’d been serving a 15-year sentence and was 11 years in at that point. The day he was released, Gerald started work as a millwright. He and his fiancée Samantha got married, and they recently welcomed their first child.

Read Gerald’s Story