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Understanding the First Step Act

Criminal justice reform has long been a major topic of concern for people in Texas and across the country. Now, the First Step Act has been introduced and is being backed by a diverse and sometimes incongruous set of supporters, including President Donald Trump and the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill has been criticized by some as only a cosmetic improvement while others have accused it of being soft on crime. Nevertheless, it's important to understand the specific provisions of the law to see how it will affect people dealing with the justice system.

One of the major issues handled in the bill is the historic disparity in crack sentencing as opposed to powder cocaine sentencing. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the massive disparity, which disproportionately affected black defendants. However, people sentenced before 2010 are still serving disproportionate sentences. The First Step Act would make the sentence reform retroactive, and those affected could petition for release.

The bill would also add discretion to the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for federal judges. The exception is available now only to nonviolent drug offenders with no criminal record. Under the reform, discretion could be used for people with only limited criminal backgrounds. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this could exempt 2,000 more people each year from mandatory minimums. In addition, the First Step Act would reduce the "three strikes" rule. Instead of a mandatory life sentence after three serious violent or drug-related felonies, the mandatory minimum would now be 25 years.

The consequences of a criminal conviction can be significant and life-changing. That's why someone facing charges may want to work with a criminal defense attorney. A lawyer could work to prevent a conviction.

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