Under the First Step Act which instigates prison reforms, nearly 2,400 crack cocaine offenders charged with federal crimes have received sentence reductions.
Provisions of The First Step Act
On December 21, 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act which provides prison reforms for federal prisoners. The First Step Act was signed into law to improve outcomes within the criminal justice system and reduce the size of the federal prison population. It limits mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses, provides retroactive sentence reductions for inmates imprisoned under the 100 to 1 crack cocaine disparity, and expands rehabilitation programs in federal prisons. The First Step Act reforms only apply to federal prisoners, so inmates in state-run facilities are not impacted.
Limits on Mandatory Minimum Sentences
The First Step Act changes penalties for certain drug offenses. In most states, including Minnesota, drug trafficking can be charged as a felony. A St Paul criminal lawyer often sees harsh penalties for repeat drug offenders.
The First Step Act modifies mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers with prior drug convictions. For offenders with one prior conviction, a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence is reduced to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. For “three-strike” offenders with three or more prior convictions, a life-in-prison mandatory minimum sentence is reduced to a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Retroactive Sentence Reductions
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law by President Obama. It put limits on harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. The law raised the quantity of crack cocaine necessary for 5-year and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences set in 1986 and reduced the cocaine sentencing quantity disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1.
The First Step Act makes provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Prisoners incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses who received longer sentences prior to 2010 can now receive retroactive sentence reductions for crack cocaine offenses. In Minnesota cases, a St Paul criminal lawyer can submit a petition in federal court to have sentences for possession of crack cocaine reduced.
The First Step Act “good time credits” allow inmates to reduce their sentences. Prior to the new law, inmates without a record for disciplinary actions could receive credits up to 47 days for each year of their imposed sentence. The First Step Act increases credits to 54 days, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year of their sentence. An offender sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence who earns the maximum good time credits each year will earn 540 days of credit. The change is retroactive, allowing as many as 4,000 inmates to qualify for an earlier release.
The law also allows inmates to receive “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. These credits will permit early release to halfway houses or home confinement. “Good time credits” and “earned time credits” will allow the justice system to prevent prison overcrowding and reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released.
All federal inmates will not benefit from earned time credits. The prison system uses an algorithm to determine which inmates can cash in earned time credits. Inmates deemed at higher risk of repeat offenses may earn credits but are not allowed to cash them in until their risk level is reduced.
Certain offenses, usually violent crimes, make inmates ineligible for “earned time credits.” In addition, crimes involving espionage, terrorism, sex and sexual exploitation, human trafficking, firearms, and high-level drug offenses commonly seen by St Paul criminal lawyers are ineligible.
Impact on the Federal Prison System
Although the First Step Act, signed by President Trump, was widely supported by Republicans and Democrats, the impact on the federal prison system is questionable. Since the law only relates to inmates incarcerated in federal prisons, it will have a relatively small impact on America’s criminal justice system.
According to the US Bureau of Justice, 87 percent of prison inmates are incarcerated in state facilities, and hundreds of thousands of people are held in local jails every day. Federal inmates make up a small percentage of U.S. prisoners, only 2.1 million throughout the country. In addition, the majority of federal prisoners are not violent offenders. Many are incarcerated for white-collar crimes such as tax fraud, wire and internet fraud, identity theft, money laundering, forgery, currency violations, counterfeiting, extortion, bribery, and blackmail. A St Paul criminal lawyer who handles federal crime cases sees a large percentage of white-collar crimes, as well as federal drug-related crimes.
Although the First Step Act has important provisions, many law enforcement agencies suggest that criminal justice reform falls largely to state prisons rather than federal prisons where less than 25 percent of the country’s prison population is incarcerated.