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First Step Act Cuts Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Offenders

Posted on in Drug Crimes

Bronx Drug Possession Attorney

Drug possession is both a state crime (NY PEN §220) and a federal crime (21 U.S.C. 13), but federal penalties tend to be more severe than state penalties for an equivalent offense. In fact, federal laws dictating mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes have been widely criticized for keeping thousands of non-violent drug offenders in prison for excessive periods of time and for having a disproportionate effect on African-Americans. The First Step Act of 2018 has been hailed as a major breakthrough in correcting these issues.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences Biased Against Crack Cocaine

The mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses provide a good example of how harsh and racially-biased federal drug sentencing laws can be. Prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a seller caught with just 50 grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years. Even after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a seller caught with as little as 280 grams of crack cocaine was subject to a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years for a first-time offender or 20 years to life for a repeat offender. In contrast, a seller would have to be caught with 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to qualify for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, African-Americans represent about 80% of crack offenders and just 28% of powder cocaine offenders who are predominantly Hispanic.

These stiff federal penalties led to a massive rise in the federal prison population from 23,566 inmates in 1976 to 183,493 in 2018. The associated prison expense rose from $184 million in 1976 to nearly $7 billion in 2016. The rise in the federal prison population was attributed to drug sentencing policies. In 2016, 49 percent of all federal inmates were drug offenders and 38 percent of all inmates were drug offenders serving a mandatory minimum sentence.

The First Step Act of 2018 Eases Federal Sentencing Minimums

The First Step Act remedies some of the disparities created by the federal government’s harsh minimum sentencing guidelines, particularly for crack cocaine offenders and those with some criminal history.

First, it takes the more lenient sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders introduced in 2010 and applies them retroactively to people sentenced prior to that time. Roughly 3,000 people currently held in federal prisons are now eligible for reduced sentences.

Second, it softens the mandatory minimum sentences for other drug crimes. For a drug crime involving serious injury to a victim, the mandatory sentence drops from 20 years to 15 years. A third drug trafficking offense will now have a minimum 25-year sentence rather than a life sentence. However, these shortened sentences only apply to future offenders; people already imprisoned cannot apply for a sentence reduction.

Third, it expands the “safety valve” which exempts offenders from a mandatory minimum sentence. Previously, only a person with no criminal record could avoid a mandatory minimum sentence. Now, offenders with a limited criminal history, such as two prior jail sentences of less than one year, can qualify for this exemption.

Aggressive Defense from a New York City Drug Crimes Lawyer

If you have been arrested for possession or distribution of controlled substances, you could be facing years in prison. Choose a Manhattan drug crimes defense attorney with a decades-long track record of success in the criminal courts of New York. Call Watford Jackson, PLLC at 855-WAT-JACK or 855-928-5225.

 

Sources:

https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45075.pdf

https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/quick-facts/Crack_Cocaine_FY17.pdf

https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/quick-facts/Powder_Cocaine_FY17.pdf

https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/02/opinions/first-step-act-so-far-opinion-jones-jackson/index.html

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/11/16/what-s-really-in-the-first-step-act

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