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Stephanie Pellitt

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Congress Passes Criminal Justice Reform

December 20, 2018 | Justice | Comments
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Earlier this week, the Senate and House both voted to pass the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. Notably, the First Step Act includes a reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, a law that supports state and local reentry programs to reduce recidivism and provides people leaving prison with post-release supportive services, including mental health and addiction treatment. President Trump is expected to sign the measure into law on Friday (12/21).


The First Step Act represents the some of the biggest changes to the federal criminal justice system in decades. Overall, the bill makes federal sentencing laws less punitive, which could benefit individuals with mental illness and addiction currently incarcerated in our federal prison system. The major provisions of the First Step Act would:

  • Make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. According to the Marshall Project, this could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates,.
  • Ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law.
  • Increases the cap for “good time credits” that inmates can earn to shorten their prison sentences.
  • Allow inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. These credits would allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement.


Since its establishment in 2008, the Second Chance Act has funded more than 600 grants to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations in developing and implementing programs to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reintegrate into the community after their release from correctional facilities. The Second Chance Reauthorization Act (included as part of the First Step Act) would reauthorize a diverse array of federal programs, including:

  • The Adult and Juvenile Offender State and Local Reentry Demonstration Project Grant Program: Promoting successful reintegration into the community of individuals who have been incarcerated, the program strengthens support for grantees with programs that target offenders with histories of homelessness, substance abuse, or mental illness.
  • Family-Based Substance Abuse Treatment Grants: This program – maintained at level funding of $10 million per year through 2023 – establishes or enhances residential substance use treatment programs in correctional facilities that include recovery and family supportive services. The bill expands those eligible to receive grants to include nonprofit organizations, as well as state and local governments, and gives priority consideration to nonprofit organizations with demonstrated relationships to state and local agencies.
  • Offender Reentry Substance Abuse and Criminal Justice Collaboration Program: Maintained at existing funding levels of $15 million per year through 2023, this program funds grants to improve drug treatment, develop programs for supervision of individuals with substances use, strengthen rehabilitation efforts, and establish pharmacological drug treatment services as part of programs offered to incarcerated individuals.
  • Improves, Consolidates and Coordinates Federal Reentry Programs: The bill requires that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) establish a comprehensive prisoner reentry program, assist incarcerated individuals in obtaining identification prior to their release, and work with the Department of Labor to incentivize employers to hire former prisoners. The bill also codifies existing efforts to coordinate reentry efforts throughout the federal government.
  • Creates the Partnerships to Expand Access to Reentry Programs Proven to Reduce Recidivism: A new program which will allow certain faith-based nonprofit organizations to partner with local and federal prisons to provide mentoring or other programming demonstrated to decrease recidivism.

The reauthorization of Second Chance also includes changes to address inadequacies in the program. These include:

  • Requiring the Department of Justice to make every effort to ensure equitable geographic distribution of grants while considering the needs of underserved populations, including rural and tribal communities.
  • Expanding Career Training Grants outside of technical career training and employment to include all careers.
  • Subsidizing employment and career training programs to formerly incarcerated individuals.

You can read more about the benefits of Second Chance Act Grants here.