However, the bill does have considerable limits. As Vox and other publications note, the majority of those imprisoned in the U.S. are sitting in state prisons, not federal ones.


Questions also remain about several key parts of the legislation, including a plan for a “time credit” system, which inmates could use to reduce their sentences or go into alternate forms of custody, like home confinement.

From Vox:

The system would use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits, with inmates deemed higher risk excluded from cashing in, although not from earning the credits (which they could then cash in if their risk level is reduced).

But algorithms can perpetuate racial and class disparities that are already deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. For instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.


Undocumented immigrants and people convicted of high-level offenses would also be excluded from earning credits, writes Vox.

But even with these caveats, the changes introduced in the First Step bill are significant, bolstering a trend that has emerged in cities like Tulsa, Okla., and St. Louis, where mass incarceration has had such devastating effects on communities and resources that it’s become a bipartisan issue. And while the bill has its limits, criminal justice advocates believe the reforms it brings to the federal prison system could push more states to adopt similar changes.