The passage of the First Step Act by the federal government one year ago marked a significant change in the way states approached the issue of criminal justice reform. Some states, like Florida, have been fighting for years to pass reforms, but after the passage of the First Step Act, the momentum for reform helped carry those endeavors through the legislature and to the Governor’s desk. Other more traditionally conservative states, like North Carolina and Arkansas, have now been introducing legislation to address problems within their states’ criminal justice systems by moving towards workable reforms modeled after the federal legislation. The First Step Act provided political cover for right-of-center, state-level lawmakers to address critical issues facing the criminal justice system.
Here we discuss the history of the First Step Act and more broadly the trajectory of past criminal justice reforms. After establishing the federal landscape, we aimed to outline the current positions of the states who are engaging in criminal justice reform and how movement on the federal level paved the way for successful legislative outcomes. In our final analysis, we articulate the need to fully implement reforms and provide evidence that even the best of bills, if left unfunded or otherwise incomplete, will fail.