Jeffrey E. Johnston

First Step Act could affect criminal justice reform

Criminal justice reform is a priority for many people in Georgia, especially those dealing with drug convictions or a federal criminal record. Years of criticism about unfairness in the system and its failure to enable re-entry into society have culminated in the new First Step Act. The bill is backed by an odd alliance that includes President Donald Trump alongside longtime criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU. However, others have criticized the legislation for failing to address serious concerns and others have called it soft on crime.

It is important to understand how the bill could affect people actually dealing with the system if it becomes law. One of the most immediate effects would be felt by around 2,600 people serving federal sentences for crack cocaine convictions prior to 2010. In that year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the massive disparity in sentencing amid crack and powder cocaine convictions. This disproportionately affected African American defendants and was a major point of contention for years. However, the reform was not retroactive. Under the First Step Act, people could petition a judge for release for their pre-2010 crack convictions.

The bill would also reform federal approaches to mandatory minimum sentencing. Exemptions would be available to federal judges in cases involving people with only limited criminal records, which could affect 2,000 people every year. In addition, the "three-strikes" rule, in which people are sentenced to life imprisonment after three federal serious felony convictions, would change. A mandatory 25-year prison sentence would replace the life sentence requirement.

A federal criminal conviction can affect all aspects of a person's life, including their future education, housing and employment. However, defendants facing criminal charges can work with criminal defense lawyers. An attorney can work to challenge prosecution assertions before trial and in the courtroom.

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Jeffrey E. Johnston

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