About 2,600 federal inmates in Texas and around the country who are serving long custodial sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine could be released if the First Step Act reaches President Trump’s desk. Trump has vowed to sign the criminal justice reform bill, but political analysts expect bipartisan opposition in Congress to be fierce. Some Republicans say that the bill goes too far and jeopardizes public safety while many Democrats say that it does not go far enough.
The custodial sentences for crack and powder cocaine were brought broadly into line by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. If it withstands congressional scrutiny, the First Step Act would make those reforms retroactive. In order to obtain sentencing relief under the bill, federal prisoners will be required to submit petitions and make their arguments before a judge.
If passed, the First Step Act would do a lot more than widen the scope of the Fair Sentencing Act. Several mandatory minimum sentences would be reduced by five years by the bill, and federal judges would be able to deviate from sentencing guidelines in more situations. This greater judicial discretion would mean that about 2,000 federal prisoners each year would avoid mandatory minimums according to the Congressional Budget Office. The First Step Act would also reduce the penalty for a third drug trafficking or violent felony from life imprisonment to 25 years.
The penalties for many federal crimes would remain unduly harsh even if the President signs the Fist Step Act into law. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to mitigate these penalties and secure more lenient treatment for their clients by entering into plea discussions with prosecutors. When these negotiations are unproductive, or the evidence against their clients does not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, attorneys may advocate on behalf of their clients in court.