This OpEd by yours truly appears in the June 24, 2019 issue of Florida Today.


Most people are not aware of the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump in December of 2018. It is a major achievement in improving the criminal justice system, long overdue.

This law seeks to incentivize prison inmates to participate in training programs targeted at increasing opportunities once released. Participation can earn as many as 47 days per year knocked off their sentences. Inmates also earn lighter sentences while ensuring, after release, they will become a productive member of society.

We all want to see criminals pay their debts for committing crimes, particularly violent felonies. No argument there. But imposing extreme sentences on people who will spend 20 to 50 years behind bars does nothing to rehabilitate. Rather, it further reduces opportunities for ex-inmates to become productive citizens.

Some want to see criminals enter prison for decades. But we forget that most of those inmates will be coming out one day, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Not everyone has family members or friends. Not all have support systems. Many are released without any source of income.

Ricky L. was a 31-year-old armed robber who had spent nearly 90% of his adult years in prison. He had no friends or family. No money, no transportation. When he applied for jobs, he was rejected because of his felony record. Finally, he resorted to committing a series of crimes in hopes of getting caught. Still free, he checked himself into a hospital and confessed to doctors. Ricky wanted to go “home.” He didn’t know how to be free. He died in prison.

The president deserves kudos for his latest efforts in tackling long overdue needs of the criminal justice system in America. At a White House event this month, President Trump was joined by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and justice reform advocate and TV star Kim Kardashian West, who was a key figure in obtaining the release of Matthew Charles from a Tennessee prison. Charles spent two decades incarcerated for selling crack cocaine.    

Legislators and judges are certainly concerned about getting elected, or re-elected. A death knell against winning at the polls is to appear “soft on crime,” generally measured in sentencing practices. That, in turn, results in many years behind bars accomplishing nothing.

Judges are subject to following rules. Sentences for many felonies are spelled out in minimum mandatory guidelines from which judges cannot ignore. The First Step Act helps judges circumvent minimum mandatories, in appropriate situations. Too often, an 18-year-old makes a mistake for which he will pay until he’s 90 years old.

Charles was the first person to be released under the First Step Act. According to the National Review, another 1,151 crack cocaine sentences have been reduced.

With Trump by her side, Kardashian West announced that she has also been working on a ride sharing program to help former inmates get transportation to jobs and/or interviews.

I have often written about the extreme and morally damaging sentencing practices of the modern era. Our prison system is supposed to be a source of rehabilitation, when in fact, it is little more than a system for warehousing human beings. Yes, we want bad people punished. Their victims deserve that. But we also must deal with the final outcome at the end of that tunnel. 

Overall, warehousing is a costly endeavor. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, taxpayers spend an average of $31,000 per year, per inmate. California’s average is $60,000. That does not take into account the population of aging inmates, where costs run much higher. The prison population has now soared to roughly 131,000 inmates over age 55. That’s a lot of medical expenses.

America houses approximately 2.3 million people in jails and prisons. Prison rates in the U.S. are the world’s highest at 724 per 100,000. Russia is second, at 581 per 100,000.

We need to do better. The First Step Act is a great start

Donald Trump’s criminal justice reform shows results



  1. Helen Bennett June 24, 2019 at 11:41 am #

    I read this in the paper this morning and I agree with you.

    I am watching the series called “The Redemption Project,” with Van Jones, in which family members meet incarcerated criminals who murdered a loved one. It gives the criminal a chance to clear his conscience (if he has one) and the family to find closure, if the criminal is truly remorseful. Have you seen this worthwhile program?

  2. Eileen June 24, 2019 at 12:08 pm #

    I did not know this. Thanks for the awareness, Marshall.

  3. Richard June 24, 2019 at 12:38 pm #

    Do you think that Trump might have a second term I’ll tear your motive for his position; namely how much time he will serve if he gets convicted. Marshall, it is interesting that no bank in this country would loan Trump any money because his credit is lousy but Deutsche Bank is loaning him hundreds of millions of dollars. Q: What person or entity is Jaren teen these loans. It just didn’t make sense that this is the only bank that is willing to loan him this amount of money and he is so supportive of Putin. I believe this is why he does not want any of his financial records exposed. Things have to make sense and this Financial investment of Deutsche bank had to pass muster show that the bank would not be in the position of Lehman Brothers were so many others who went belly up for lousy investments

    • Tom June 24, 2019 at 9:48 pm #

      Richard, you are very much off the topic of Criminal Justice Reform with your rabid anti-Trump sputterings, which no one cares to read about on this forum.
      Go back into your hole.

      • paul Vincent zecchino July 9, 2019 at 7:14 pm #

        Well said, Tom. Thank you for saying it.

  4. Fred Ingley June 24, 2019 at 2:54 pm #

    Amen to that Brother,
    With over 20 years of LE under my belt, including about 15 as a Parole & Probation Officer, I’ve personally seen the injustice done by minimum sentencing guidelines, especially for nonviolent drug offenses. While I positively state, “I’d never put any of that
    s— into my body!”, what right do we have to tell another that he/she is a criminal for putting something into his/her own body, no matter if it does or does not harm it? Anyone has the right to be stupid. (As many of our professional politicians are living examples.) With the reservation that when doing so the safety of others is in danger such as driving, committing criminal activities to gain funds for purchasing the drugs, etc. As the organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) emphasizes, “Drug addiction is bad, The War On Drugs is worst.” Anyone have any idea as to the number of young felons exist for simply smoking a joint How much of the law enforcement resources could have been used for reducing violent crimes instead of non violent drug activity? Don’t get me wrong, there are a fair number of violent criminals who should be warehoused for the rest of their lives. I’ve personally supervised some such on parole who fitted in that category. One in fact, on a second parole murdered a friend and colleague.
    On the other hand, I’ve supervised others who through some assistance and determination to change their bad habits and prior associates have climbed the ladder to be productive citizens whom I’ve seen accomplish greater things than the majority of those of us who have never had a run in with the Law.

  5. Terry Terril June 24, 2019 at 3:07 pm #

    Marshal you are right-on with this info. I spent over 20 yrs working in corrections here in Florida. Long term sentences defeat their purpose. Short and hard works better. There is some punishment and a chance to learn a lesson. Serious crimes with death and injury are more complicated.

  6. Charles Pierce June 24, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

    We will see how this goes, in 10 or 20 years when the crime rate is over the top, we will have to change again. I have lived in many cultures in my life and the most effective criminal justice system is in Turkey, sentences are relatively short, but the state provides only the cell to live in, no food, no clothing, no medical the rearrest rate is .05% over the life of the individual. Ours is near 85% within 3 years. Makes one think does it not.

  7. Anonymous June 24, 2019 at 5:33 pm #

    Amazing how Trump haters can turn just about anything the man has done that deserves some merit into an indictment.

  8. Jack A. Milavic June 24, 2019 at 11:22 pm #

    Excellent comments. With aforementioned said I encourage we all still express compassion for the victims. I have noticed a trend of ignoring victims rights.

    What the heck was all that non relative Trump ranting about.

  9. GR June 25, 2019 at 7:52 am #

    Good article, Marshall. gr

  10. Helen R. Frigo June 25, 2019 at 9:22 am #

    Thank you, Marshall. I see people are still being arrested for marijuana possession, and is their driver’s license suspended in FL, even if they don’t go to jail? Then when they drive, and are arrested for driving on a suspended license, they do go to jail? A former FL State rep or senator, Paula Dockery, gave the list of crimes that could get your license suspended, and how so many people end up in FL jails that way. Will this new law change that? And to Richard, give it up. Republicans couldn’t impeach or convict President Bill Clinton of Whitewater, when they were in the Majority. So much money was wasted! Now, Dems are just shooting themselves in the foot, giving so much publicity to a man who thrives on even bad press. Don’t fall into his trap, Richard, please!

  11. jose June 26, 2019 at 9:37 am #

    I realize, in light of our current political mess with Trump and his dealings, you want to give our president credit for something positive. I surely agree with your hopes and dreams. However, isn’t it just a little early to call this Act a success? It’s less than one year old!!!

    Now lets see how under Trump’s leadership how we can deal with all the factors that contribute to crimes being committed in the first place. Need to start somewhere and there are lots to choose from: breakdown of family, leadership at all levels of society, social injustice, education (especially vocational training), mental health, jobs, livable minimum wage, inconsistent federal/state laws (pot, abortion, etc.), general health, gun control, and effective police-community relations. Those are just a few contributors that come to mind. Do you see our president working on ANY of these??

    I’m simply a Regan Republican desperately waiting for genuine leadership in the GOP.

  12. Helen R. Frigo June 27, 2019 at 10:24 am #

    Thank you jose: Me, too. President Obama could have just simply taken marijuana off the list of most dangerous drugs, where it is ranked more dangerous than cocaine, I think.
    Why he didn’t do it, I don’t understand. But President Trump, now, could do what Obama did not, and thus stop the Feds from putting people in jail for using marijuana. I understand Trump’s brother died of alcoholism, drug use, etc. But at 77 years of age, I have heard of many friends, neighbors, etc., who have used and even grew and sold marijuana in the past, and lived productive, tax-paying lives. A veteran who had served in Iraq, told Leonard Pitts, Jr., how he had tried every drug the VA prescribed to stop his nightmares and let him sleep. Marijuana was the only thing that worked. Yet many such veterans HAVE been arrested for using marijuana. Way too many others commit suicide. Please, would those of you who have President Trump’s ear, please persuade him to help our veterans, at least? Thank you

  13. paul Vincent zecchino July 9, 2019 at 7:17 pm #

    Thank you, Marshall, for publicizing this fine effort on part of the President.