The United States Senate this Tuesday passed a bill reforming the federal criminal justice system, and by a wide margin. While being touted as a major overhaul, the bill, in fact, does some modest tuning of federal felony sentencing. The bill still needs House approval, in a vote expected next week, but the House approved a similar bill earlier this year, so its passage is widely expected. [update: the House passed the bill Dec. 18] The bill is known as the “First Step Act” and the President has signaled he will sign it into law. [update: the President signed the bill into law Dec. 21]
Prosecutors and federal defense attorneys across the nation are starting to review drug cases for offenders who would be eligible for early release under the bill’s federal sentencing reforms.
What is the First Step Act?
The First Step Act revises federal sentencing laws for drug offenses, expands rehabilitation programs for non violent drug users and drug dealers, gives judges more discretion during sentencing for drug offenses, and importantly, enacts reduction of some sentences.
The bill affects only those serving sentences in federal prisons, not those in state prisons or county jails. It is intended to target those convicted of federal felony drug crimes.
Here is a snapshot of what the major provisions of the bill do:
1) Easing Mandatory Sentences
Federal judges will have more discretion in applying mandatory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders who have no – or limited – criminal backgrounds. It reduces the mandatory “three strikes” sentence from life to 25 years for some repeat offenders. Serious drug felonies would trigger an automatic 15-year sentence down from the current 20 years. And, an automatic additional 25 years for gun-related trafficking or violent felonies will now apply only to those with a prior record of a similar offense.
2) Makes the Fair Sentencing Act Retroactive
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought penalties for crack cocaine in line with penalties for the white power form of the drug. The First Step act makes that retroactive, allowing those eligible for a revision in their sentence to petition the court for a release or reduction.
3) Gives Good Time Credits
Allows inmates in federal prison to earn up to 54 days off their sentence for good behavior, upping the good behavior credit from 47 days.
4) Enforces Some Prisoner Opportunities
The First Step Act also address some provisions of existing laws, including placing offenders in facilities that are within 500 driving miles of their home or family, giving people access to rehabilitation services, and access to education and training opportunities. It also directs the Bureau of Prisons to submit a report on the availability of heroin and opioid treatment programs with a description of the plan to expand access to such programs for prisoners. It also prohibits the restraint of pregnant inmates.
5) Expands Rehab & Work Opportunities
Under the bill, offenders have the opportunity to earn 10 days in a halfway house or in-home supervision for every 30 days spent in rehabilitative programs, with no limit on the number of credit days they can earn. Rehabilitation programs from outside community and faith-based groups will get easier access to prisons to provide such services and programs. And, the bill approves $375 million in federal funding for job training and education programs. Money earned by inmates through work opportunities will be placed in an escrow account to help pay for post-release expenses.
The bill is not the “sweeping overhaul” some claim it to be. It does indeed assist some estimated 180,000 people currently in federal prison and makes future sentencing a bit more fair. If the House passes it as expected, it is at least a “first step” to creating a fairer criminal justice system.[update: the President signed the bill into law Dec. 21]
Jeremy N. Goldman is a distinguished criminal defense attorney and trial lawyer. He has a track record of successfully defending violent crime, drug offense, and federal cases, often getting charges dismissed or winning acquittals after jury trial. He is certified as a specialist in criminal law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Jeremy Goldman is available for a no-cost consultation on any criminal matter. Call our office today at 949-387-6670 or send us an email online here.