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First Step Act advances prison and sentencing reform

The First Step Act continues to make progress within the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support. The bill contains a number of reforms to criminal sentencing guidelines and seeks to enforce existing rules that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has failed to observe. A prominent reform within the legislation would apply to prisoners in Kentucky and around the country who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses prior to 2010. If passed, the new law could allow people with long sentences to petition for early release.

Historically, sentences for crack cocaine convictions exceeded penalties for people caught possessing or selling powdered cocaine. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act eliminated most of the disparities between sentences based on the form of cocaine involved.

The First Step Act would also provide relief from the three strikes rule that sent many people to prison for life for repeat offenses. Instead of life sentences after multiple convictions for violent or drug crimes, judges could impose a 25-year sentence. The bill proposes that judges would gain the ability to work around mandatory minimum sentences for a larger pool of people with modest criminal histories.

The legislation would place more pressure on the Bureau of Prisons to follow existing regulations about confining prisoners within 500 miles of families and providing training opportunities. The current limit of 47 days off of a sentence for good behavior would increase to 54 days.

Because many convictions lead to lengthy prison sentences, a person facing a criminal charge could consult an attorney. After reviewing the evidence, an attorney could explain the chances of a conviction. This information could help a person understand the stakes of a criminal trial. If a plea bargain appears to be the more reasonable choice, an attorney could strive to negotiate a favorable agreement.

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