As we discussed on this blog last December, the First Step Act was a bipartisan reform law that promised relief for federal defendants and prisoners in several areas. The Act was expected to be especially helpful to minority defendants, as minorities have traditionally been sentenced more harshly than whites for equivalent crimes. The first major overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in decades, the First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.
Initial results of the Act are just coming out. In the first four months of the law’s application, 1,051 federal prisoners’ resentencing petitions were granted. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the sentences were reduced by a mean average of 29.4%, or 73 months. More than 91% of those benefitting from resentencing were African-American.
The First Step Act reduces unfair federal drug sentences
Two main groups of prisoners were offered relief through the Act.
One was a group who had been subject to a substantial sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. In the 1980s, the federal government decided to punish crack cocaine offenses 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses involving the same dose.
This was found to be not only unfair but also racist in effect. That is because the vast majority of black cocaine users used crack, while the vast majority of white cocaine users used powder. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses to 18:1, which many still see as patently unfair. The First Step Act reduced the original 100:1 disparity for people who hadn’t been eligible for reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act.
The second group are people who had been given life or “virtual life” sentences for nonviolent offenses. Believe it or not, this accounts for more than two-thirds of federal prisoners. A large proportion of these nonviolent lifers or virtual lifers are drug offenders.
The First Step Act addressees the problem in two ways. First, it gives judges more discretion around mandatory minimum sentences, which are often responsible for unjust-seeming life or virtual life sentences. Second, it changed the federal “three strikes” rule, which had been mandating life sentences after three felony convictions. Now, three strikes results in a mandatory 25-year sentence.
The Act also reformed other areas of the federal criminal justice system. For example, it requires prisons to provide free, appropriate feminine hygiene products. It also severely restricts the use of restraints such as handcuffs when a federal prisoner is giving birth.
If you or a loved one is a federal prisoner who might be eligible for a sentencing reduction, contact a criminal defense lawyer.