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Criminal Defense From A Former Prosecutor

The First Step Act faces vocal bipartisan opposition

As many as 2,600 federal prisoners in California and around the country incarcerated for selling or distributing crack cocaine could be released if the First Step Act withstands bipartisan opposition in Congress. The president has said that he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk, but that outcome is far from assured. Democrats have criticized the bill for not going far enough to reform the criminal justice system while many Republicans have voiced concerns about releasing people they view as dangerous criminals back into society.

If passed, the First Step Act would make the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The law was passed in 2010 to bring the penalties for crimes involving crack cocaine into line with the sentences handed out to offenders who sell, distribute and traffic powder cocaine. Prisoners who qualify for release or a sentence reduction under the First Step Act will be required to file a petition and argue their cases before a judge.

In addition to broadening the scope of the Fair Sentencing Act, the First Step Act reduces several mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and allows federal judges to use more discretion in narcotics cases. According to officials from the Congressional Budget Office, this greater judicial discretion will spare approximately 2,000 prisoners each year from mandatory minimum sentences. The bill also reduces the mandatory sentence for a third violent felony or drug trafficking conviction from life to 25 years.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences by resolving cases with serious drug crimes at the negotiating table. However, attorneys might reject the plea offers made by prosecutors and advocate on behalf of their clients in court when the evidence against them is lacking or their constitutional rights may have been violated by the police officers involved.

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