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Federal First Step Act would reduce crack sentencing disparity

It appears that the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill backed by bipartisan groups and supported by the President, may yet come up for a vote this year. The bill proposes changes in federal criminal sentencing and promises some reforms in the prison system.

Supporters say the First Step Act represents the most significant reforms to the federal justice system in decades. What could we expect if the law is passed?

Continue reforming unequal sentences between crack and powder cocaine offenders

In the 1980s, Congress passed a number of laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences and basing drug sentences on the defendant's prior criminal history and the amount of drugs involved in the offense. Unfortunately, lawmakers specified much harsher sentences for people involved with crack cocaine than those involved with an equivalent dose of powder cocaine.

The policy resulted in crack offenses being punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. Intentionally or not, the policy came down hard on the African-American community, where people were much more likely to use crack over powder.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) to address the 100-to-1 disparity. Unfortunately, the FSA only partially addressed the disparity, reducing it to 18 to 1.

The FSA was made retroactive for most defendants, but about 2,600 people remain subject to the sentencing disparity. The First Step Act would give that group the chance for resentencing.

Give judges more sentencing discretion in many cases

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws effectively take away judges' discretion over sentencing, leaving them with no option but to hand down the sentence enacted by Congress even when doing so is demonstrably unjust. As a result, they frequently result in sentences that even judges believe are too harsh for the associated crimes.

Judges and criminal justice reformers have long asked for a "safety valve" -- some mechanism allowing judges to deviate from mandatory sentences when those sentences would result in injustice. Currently, federal judges are given this "safety valve" in cases involving people accused of nonviolent drug crimes who have no prior criminal history. The First Step Act would expand the safety valve to apply to people with limited criminal histories, as well. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this would affect approximately 2,000 additional people each year.

In addition, some mandatory sentences would be reduced. In the case of the "three strikes" law, for example, a third strike would result in a mandatory 25-year sentence instead of a life sentence.

The bill is still being revised and amended to address various concerns, so there may yet be changes before it is passed.

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