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The First Step Act takes aim at federal sentencing inequalities

Civil rights groups in Georgia and around the country have long called for the criminal justice system to be reformed, and President Trump has vowed to heed those calls by signing the First Step Act should the bipartisan bill make its way to his desk. The bill is expected to be opposed by from both sides of the political aisle. Conservative Republicans feel that more lenient sentences encourage criminal activity and endanger the public, and some Democrats have attacked the bill for providing what they see as little more than cosmetic solutions to complex and systemic problems.

Naming the criminal justice reform bill the First Step Act suggests that lawmakers see the legislation as a beginning rather than a complete solution. The bill makes reforms implemented by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which could provide relief to about 2,600 federal prisoners, who are mostly African-Americans, serving excessively harsh sentences for offenses involving the sale and distribution of crack cocaine.

The bill expands the grounds under which federal judges can stray from mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. The Congressional Budget Office says that this reform alone could affect 2,000 prisoners each year. The First Step Act also reduces several mandatory minimum sentences by five years and reduces what is known as the third-strike penalty from life imprisonment to 25 years.

Attorneys with experience in drug crime defense may applaud lawmakers for taking steps to address inequalities in the criminal justice system. Attorneys might also seek to ensure that their clients receive more lenient treatment by negotiating plea agreements with prosecutors that reduce penalties in return for cooperation and a guilty plea. However, when the evidence against their clients is less than convincing or police may have violated rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, attorneys may seek to have drug charges reduced or dismissed altogether.

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