In order to address mass incarceration meaningfully, Congress must pass legislation aimed at reducing state prison populations. The legislation’s name (the First Step Act) suggests there will be follow-up legislation—that Congress’s end goal has yet to be fully realized. This Note explores the details of the First Step Act with an eye toward drafting the “Second Step Act” in a way that adequately addresses the root causes of mass incarceration. In Part I, this Note discusses the events leading up to the passage of the First Step Act and its key provisions addressing sentencing reform and rehabilitative programming. Part II discusses the First Step Act’s successes and shortcomings with respect to three prisoner subgroups: mentally ill inmates, nonviolent offenders, and recidivists. After identifying the main problems with the First Step Act in Part II, Part III offers a new legislative solution: the Second Step Act. Through the Second Step Act, Congress will set up a competitive grant fund for purposes of incentivizing states to reduce incarceration rates in a targeted fashion. In their grant proposals, applicants will include comprehensive plans for reducing their state prison population without a significant rise in crime rates. The proposals will specifically address the needs of the three prisoner subgroups discussed in Part II. Much like the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative—the competitive funding grant created to reward innovative state education reforms—the Second Step Act will reward states that are paving the way for meaningful criminal justice reform. Grant applicants will rely on successful evidence-based prison reforms to craft their plans, the implementation of which will provide effective, reproducible models for other states and local agencies to follow.
The Second Step Act will not be a step worth taking unless Congress cures the First Step Act’s shortcomings with respect to the growing state prison population and, more specifically, the needs of three groups of prisoners: prisoners with mental health problems, nonviolent offenders, and recidivists.
From First Steps to Second Chances: Addressing Mass Incarceration in State Prisons,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol95/iss4/10