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Changes in Federal Sentencing Legislation in the FIRST STEP Act

Jan 02, 2019 by Mike McKneely in Criminal Defense, New Laws

In December 2018, President Trump signed into law the FIRST STEP Act, which puts in place several changes to the federal criminal justice system. Despite the intense partisanship of American politics, the STEP Act passed through Congress with strong bipartisan support. In the Senate, the bill passed with a vote of 87-12. In the House of Representatives, it passed by a margin of 358 to 36. These numbers show that more comprehensive federal justice reform could be on the horizon.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a criminal offense in Fresno, contact a federal defense attorney from Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer for help. Call (559) 443-7442, or reach out via our online form to schedule a free and confidential case consultation.

What Does the STEP Act Change?

The vast majority of Americans are charged, tried, and sentenced in the state-level criminal justice system. The STEP Act does not apply to them, since it only reforms some aspects of the federal criminal justice system. The most significant changes included in the STEP Act are:

Federal Prisoner Risk and Needs Assessment System

Phased in over the next three years, this risk assessment tool will categorize prisoners as minimum, low, medium, or high-risk. Based on their risk level and individual needs, prisoners may enroll in recidivism reduction programming. By completing this programming, federal inmates may earn credits for early placement into supervised release or pre-release custody.

Changes to Mandatory Minimums

The STEP Act reduces the two-strike mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenders with a prior conviction from 20 years to 15 years. The three-strikes rule, which used to mandate a life sentence for offenders with two or more prior convictions, is now reduced to a 25-year sentence. Previously, these enhanced penalties were triggered by any felony drug offense. Now, these penalties can only be activated by a serious drug felony or serious violent felony.

Firearm Penalty Stacking

Previously, federal prosecutors could request mandatory minimums for people who committed multiple violent firearm-related offenses or drug crimes – even if those offenses were being charged at the same time. The STEP Act puts an end to the practice of “stacking” simultaneous firearms charges. Now, the mandatory minimums only apply if an offender has previously been convicted for using a firearm while committing a drug crime or violent offense.

Crack Cocaine Sentences

The FIRST STEP Act provides for the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a law that reduced the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. Anyone convicted of a crack cocaine offense before August 3, 2010 can petition the court for a reduced sentence, which the judge may grant at their discretion.

Safety Valve Expansion

The safety valve allows judges to hand out sentences that are below the statutory minimum for some non-violent, low-level drug offenses. Previously, this was only available to offenders with no more than one criminal point as defined in the federal sentencing guidelines. In other words, it only applied to people with little or no criminal history. Now, offenders with up to four points may qualify for the safety valve – although people with three-point felonies and two-point violent offenses are ineligible. Furthermore, one-point convictions are not taken into account when determining safety valve eligibility.

While the STEP Act is not a sweeping reform of the federal criminal justice system, it is a step in the right direction. Thousands of federal inmates may qualify for a reduced sentence, and many future offenders will receive more lenient sentences along with better opportunities for rehabilitation while incarcerated.

How a Fresno Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help

If you or a loved one has been charged or convicted in federal criminal court, the FIRST STEP Act reforms may apply to you. An experienced federal defense lawyer can help you understand just how these legal changes could affect the outcome of your criminal case, or even result in a shortened sentence if you have already been convicted. Attorney Michael McKneely is ready to help you take advantage of these reforms.

To schedule a free, initial evaluation of your case, contact Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer at (559) 443-7442.

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