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Congress may have to fix First Step Act

| Jun 25, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Cities in Ohio and around the country experienced a surge in violent crime when crack cocaine appeared on the streets in the late 1980s, and lawmakers responded with harsh laws that punished crack cocaine possession severely. Individuals convicted of possessing small amounts of crack cocaine were once given the same sentences as someone convicted with 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and those found in possession of larger amounts of the drug faced long mandatory minimum sentences.

Mass incarceration

These laws had an immediate impact. Prison populations around the country surged as states passed their own tough crack cocaine laws, and many of the people sentenced to decades behind bars were nonviolent offenders who had not been in trouble with the law before. This prompted calls for criminal law reform, and the Obama administration responded in 2010 by addressing the harsh mandatory sentences handed down for possessing crack cocaine. However, the new sentencing guidelines did not provide any relief to those already in prison.

The First Step Act

The First Step Act was passed in 2018 to provide this relief, and many of the bill’s bipartisan supporters said they backed the legislation because it would give people convicted of possessing small amounts of crack cocaine the chance of a reduced sentence. However, these offenders are not specifically mentioned in the First Step Act. The law only specifically applies to offenders who received mandatory minimum sentences, and there is no mandatory minimum prison sentence for possessing less than 5 grams of crack cocaine. A case involving a Florida man serving a 15-year prison sentence for possessing a small amount of crack cocaine gave the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to settle the issue, and the justices ruled on June 14 that the man’s offense was not covered by the First Step Act. Justice Sonia Sotomayor supported the decision, but she also called on Congress to “right this injustice.”

Plea negotiations

Police officers sometimes talk about harsh sentencing laws and the benefits of cooperation to convince suspects to confess or answer questions without a lawyer present. If you are ever questioned by the police, an experienced criminal defense attorney could advise you to remain silent and ask for a lawyer even if your situation seems grim. An attorney could study the facts to see if the police respected your constitutional rights and then advocate on your behalf during plea negotiations.