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Understanding the First Step Act


Congress ended 2018 by passing significant criminal justice reform legislation called the First Step Act. It will impact sentencing requirements for federal crimes and offer opportunities to reduce the time behind bars in multiple ways for inmates across the country. President Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 27, 2018. If you have been charged with federal crimes affected by the First Step Act, having an attorney who is fully versed in the changes could dramatically impact the outcome of your case.

Changes to Mandatory Sentencing 

Federal mandatory minimum sentences are the first place that many involved in the criminal justice system will see significant impacts.  Provisions include:

  • Giving judges greater latitude to use their discretion in the handing down of mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Reducing the three strikes rule that mandates life sentences for a third conviction, cutting the sentence to 25 years;
  • Reducing automatic sentences for drug convictions and violent crimes by five years;
  • Restricting the ability of prosecutors to stack weapons charges on top of drug charges, reducing prison sentences by scores of years.

Improved Conditions

Certain key changes to prison time itself is aimed at creating a more humane system:

  • Women will not be shackled while giving birth;
  • Incarceration will occur in facilities that are as close as possible to inmates’ homes and families, increasing opportunities for visitation.

Earning Good Time Credits 

Under the new legislation, inmates can earn seven additional days off of their sentences per year of incarceration based on their behavior behind bars.  That means inmates can cut 54 days per year off of their sentences. And the good news for current inmates is that the rule is retroactive, meaning thousands of individuals who are currently serving time on a federal crime could be eligible for release as soon as the bill goes into effect.

Earned Time Credits 

Inmates could mitigate their prison sentences at the same time that they learn vocational skills or undergo rehabilitation courses.  By participating in such programs, inmates can earn credits that could release them to home confinement or halfway houses giving them additional opportunities to return to communities as productive citizens.

Restrictions on Benefits 

Algorithms will be used to rank inmates according to risk levels initially allowing only those at lower risk levels to cash in on those credits.  While these restrictions are designed with an eye toward keeping communities safe, there are obvious concerns:

  • Minorities and lower income populations may be disproportionately impeded from cashing in their credits;
  • Undocumented immigrants are excluded;
  • Individuals involved in high-level offences are ineligible for the benefits at this time.

Your Legal Advocate 

At the office of Deric Zacca, P.A., you can count on deliberative, thorough legal representation when facing federal charges. Contact our Fort Lauderdale office today to schedule a confidential consultation.