There is new legislation that is on the brink of passing which may be the most substantial new federal criminal law changes in a generation. The legislation called the First Step Act is being hailed as a critical movement to create a fairer system of justice. One of the main reasons there is optimism of this legislation being passed is there is strong bi-partisan support for it. The crux of the First Step Act will be to shorten some federal prison sentences.
Drug sentencing disparity
Where this new bill can have an immediate impact is on over 2,500 federal prisoners who were convicted for non-violent crack cocaine offenses prior to 2010. That year saw the implementation of the Fair Sentencing Act which lowered the gap between punishment for the powdered form of cocaine and the crack form. The First Step Act would make the convictions prior to 2010 work retroactively with the new Sentencing Act reform. The sentencing change would not be automatic however to the 3,000 inmates that are currently eligible. The defendant would still need to submit a petition and go before a judge and prosecution.
Reduction of mandatory minimums
The First Step act will also allow judges to bypass minimum sentencing guidelines. This provision will be used for non-violent offenders who do not have a history of criminal offenses. It can also be expanded to include people who have a limited criminal history, which has been estimated to include an additional 2,000 people.
The mandatory minimum sentence for violent crimes or extreme drug charges would go down by five years and the federal rule of three felony or drug convictions automatically delivering a life sentence would be reduced to 25 years. If someone is convicted of a serious drug felony which would have automatically triggered a 20-year minimum sentence, would now only be 15 under the First Step Act.
Enforcing current rules
Another part of the First Step Act that may be a welcome reform to many, is allowing prisoners to be in facilities that are within 500 miles of their family. This will allow the prisoners better access to rehabilitative services, training opportunities and options for education. Prisoners would also be able to get up to 54 days taken off their sentences for good behavior. The good behavior fix could retroactively free around 4,000 prisoners.
Even with all the positivity around the bill, it may still have some hurdles to clear before it has enough support. A vote on the First Step Act could come before the end of 2018.