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ABA, NACDL urge Congress to fully fund federal First Step Act

The American Bar Association's (ABA's) House of Delegates and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) have just passed a unanimous resolution urging Congress to fully fund the federal First Step Act and to make it retroactive.

As we've discussed before on this blog, the bi-partisan First Step Act was signed into law last year and makes a number of reforms to the federal criminal justice and prison systems, such as:

  • Reducing unjust disparities in crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing and making them retroactive
  • Increasing judicial discretion in mandatory sentencing
  • Changing the penalty for "three strikes" from life in prison to 25 years
  • Requiring the Federal Bureau of Prisons to comply with certain civil rights orders
  • Expanding the use of "good time" credits that can reduce prisoners' sentences

Some of these reforms made existing prisoners eligible for resentencing. As of June, 1,051 federal prisoners' resentencing petitions had already been granted. Over 91% of those resentenced were African-American. That is important because previous practices had resulted in African-Americans being severely over-represented in the criminal justice system.

"[The First Step Act] is the first major step taken by the federal government toward reducing the crisis of mass incarceration," said the president of the NACDL. "The purpose of the act is to apply sensible sentences for crimes going forward."

The results so far are positive, but there is a lot more to be done to respond to over-criminalization and mass incarceration. As the ABA and NACDL pointed out, most of the First Step Act is not retroactive. That leaves past injustices in place.

Moreover, funding for all of the initiatives is not yet in place. And, risk and needs assessments of federal prisoners are required before "good time" credits can be increased. According to the Department of Justice, those assessments are on the way.

The federal First Step Act will open the doors of freedom to many people who have been subjected to overly harsh or racially disparate sentences. If you think that you or a loved one could be eligible for resentencing under the Act, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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