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The First Step Act (the Act), signed into federal law in December 2018, addresses harsh sentencing for certain drug offenses, disproportionate prison time for crack cocaine offenses, and early release initiatives for good behavior, illness, advanced age, or other compelling reasons. The overall purpose of the Act is to reduce the federal prison population and improve criminal justice outcomes without impairing public safety.

If you have a loved one serving a federal prison sentence, the First Step Act may provide an avenue to a shorter sentence. Our experienced and board certified criminal lawyer at Randall & Stump, Criminal Defense Attorneys, can determine if this federal legislation might apply to your family member’s situation. Call us at (980) 237-4579 to schedule a free initial consultation with our Charlotte trial lawyers.

A Brief History of the Act

Criminal justice reform has been a main topic in Congress for years. Previously, there was bipartisan support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), introduced in 2015. Ultimately, SRCA failed. The First Step Act is seen as a more modest criminal reform bill, but it includes some important elements of SRCA. It passed the Senate with an 87-12 majority, quickly cleared the House of Representatives, and was sent to President Trump to sign on December 21, 2018.

The Act is seen as meaningful prison reform for two reasons. It reduces the amount of time new offenders spend in prison. Shorter sentences help reduce mass incarceration. It also provides ways for certain inmates to leave prison earlier than their initial sentences called for.

What the First Step Act Can Do for You

The Act provides relief in several areas related to federal incarceration where conditions and sentencing are too harsh and have led to overcrowding.

Sentence Reductions for Certain Drug Crimes

The Act is Congress’s second stab at addressing lengthy sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine. Previously, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act lessened sentences but only for crimes committed from the point of enactment going forward. Under Section 404 of the ACT, defendants sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for a retroactive sentence reduction. If a prisoner is carrying out a lengthy sentence for crack cocaine, they can work with a lawyer to petition a federal court to reduce their sentence.

In 2000, attorney Samuel Randall successfully used a First Step Act motion in United States of America v. D.M. This case originally went to trial and the defendant was convicted of crack cocaine related charges. At the age of 27, he received a life sentence. After consideration of the First Step Act motion, the defendant’s sentence was reduced to time served and at the age of 47, he walked out of a federal prison. This would have been impossible, but for the First Step Act.

For defendants with prior Controlled substance convictions, The Act lowers the Mandatory Minimum sentences. For example, a defendant facing a ten (10) years mandatory minimum sentence with a Prior conviction could face and increased Mandatory Minimum sentence of not less than 20 years. The Act lowered the mandatory minimum to 15 years instead of 20 years when a defendant has one prior conviction and from mandatory Life to 25 years when a defendant has two or more prior convictions.

Another significant change is the expansion of the “Safe-Valve” provision. Under the old standard the safety valve provision was only available to defendants that do not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines. Judges can now go below the mandatory minimum sentence for offenders that do not have—

  • (A)more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
  • (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and
  • (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines

The other requirements have not been changed for application of the safety valve, those requirements are:

  • (2) the defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
  • (3) the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
  • (4) the defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in 21 U.S.C. § 848; and
  • (5) not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.

Additionally, Defendants charged with multiple possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence or controlled substance in violation of 18 U.S.C. §924c can no longer be sentenced to multiple consecutive sentences. Before the Act, a defendant convicted of multiple 924c violations would receive a first sentence of 5 years followed by a 25 year consecutive sentence for each conviction following the first. A defendant with a second and subsequent use of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking or violent offense for conduct during the same criminal incident. This stacking provision created a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. Moving forward, defendants only face this mandatory minimum if they have a previous conviction for using a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking or violent crime.

Better Chance of Early Release

Early release is more readily available for prisoners with good conduct credit. Federal prison inmates are eligible for up to 54 days of good conduct credit per year—an increase from the 47 good conduct credits previously granted. The Act also changed how good time credit is calculated. It is based on each year of the imposed sentence and not for each year of time served.

It’s important to note that early release doesn’t necessarily mean an inmate regains full freedom. An early release program might involve a Residential Reentry Center or home confinement. An offender will also be subject to a period of supervised release.

Recidivism Programming and Credits

The Act requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create a risk and needs assessment system for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). This system will be used to measure federal prisoners’ risk of recidivism and place them in programs and activities to reduce their risk.

Prisoners who successfully complete these activities can earn credits toward prerelease custody (if eligible), additional visitation, and other benefits. However, inmates with certain convictions cannot earn additional time credits, including those convicted of violent crimes, terrorism, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, repeat felony in possession of a firearm, high-level drug crimes, and certain fraud offenses. Their participation in these programs will go toward other benefits.

PROHIBITIONS OF GETTING RELIEF UNDER THE FIRST STEP

Not everyone that applies for relief under the First Step Act are eligible for relief. Our attorneys will give you honest and candid assessment based on the facts of your specific case. We have heard of other law firms taking money from clients to “Review” a case where a defendant is clearly not entitled to relief under the First Step Act. Our Attorney(s) can quickly assess your situation to determine whether or not you ay be entitled to relief.

Accomplishments of the First Step Act in its First Year

In the Act’s first year in effect, a social justice advocacy group looked at the results and found:

  • More than 2,000 people had benefited from the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act (reducing the sentences of those convicted of crack-related crimes).
  • Of those who received sentence reductions, the average sentence decreased by six years.
  • 91% of those receiving a sentence reduction under the Fair Sentence Act were Black.
  • 342 were approved for the elderly home confinement pilot program.
  • 107 received compassionate release sentence reductions.
  • Approximately 3,000 people were released from federal custody via expansion of good time credits, but one-third were transferred to the custody of other jurisdictions under existing detainers.

How an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

Although some of the provisions are designed to work automatically, such as sentencing for new offenses and the application of good time credits, unfortunately, the federal criminal justice system is complex. While your loved one may be eligible for a benefit under a First Step Act provision, the matter could fall through bureaucratic cracks unless they have someone to advocate on their behalf.

If a federal inmate wants to file a motion with the court for a sentence reduction under the Act, getting help from a lawyer provides the best chance a success. Because of our excellent reputation in Charlotte’s legal community, when we file a petition on a client’s behalf, the court knows it will be based on sound legal facts and arguments. We can’t guarantee a favorable outcome, but you can count on us to give it everything we have to achieve one.

By engaging our firm, you’ll have attorneys who are widely recognized by their peers and respected legal organizations. We will work with officials to make sure the First Step Act is appropriately applied to your loved one’s case.

Need to Discuss the First Step Act?

The federal legal system can be daunting. When a law is new, such as the First Step Act, even more so. You may have more questions about the Act and whether it applies to your loved one’s situation. We understand and have answers to your questions.

To discuss the matter with the federal criminal defense attorneys of Randall & Stump Criminal Defense Attorneys, call (980) 237-4579, or fill out our online form to set up a free initial consultation.