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How the First Step Act affects federal sentencing for drug charges

On Behalf of | Jun 7, 2024 | Criminal Defense

The First Step Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018. This was a milestone in criminal justice reform. This bipartisan legislation aimed to improve prison conditions and revisit sentencing laws.

A highly significant change resulted in sentencing federal drug charges as a result of the Act. Exploring the key provisions of this Act can help defendants understand how it has improved sentencing for drug offenses.

Mandatory minimum sentences

As the name suggests, mandatory minimum sentences are imposed on defendants for certain crimes, regardless of the specific circumstances of their case. Judges have applied this rule since the 1980s as part of the War on Drugs.

The goal was to curb drug trafficking; however, mandatory minimums have been under scrutiny as the world became more modernized. Some argue that they are one of the reasons why the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

The First Step Act loosened the mandatory minimums, giving judges the discretion to determine befitting sentences for individual cases. In many cases, defendants no longer have to endure excessively harsh sentences for non-violent or low-level drug crimes. With that said, initially, the law did not provide judges with the flexibility to consider defendants’ individual circumstances prior to sentencing, even for low-level drug offenses.

Shorter mandatory minimum sentences

One way the bipartisan legislation addressed harsh sentencing was by shortening mandatory minimum sentences. For example, defendants who got convicted for a third drug trafficking offense no longer had to serve a life sentence. Instead, they got a 25-year sentence with hopes of reintegrating into society someday.

Additionally, low-level state drug crimes are no longer treated as third drug trafficking offenses. Now, a drug crime only qualifies for a 25-year sentence if it’s a felony drug crime or a serious violent felony offense.

Another notable reform is the reduced sentence for second drug trafficking offenses from 20 years to 15 years. Of course, this reduction still translates to a significant sentence, but a five-year sentence difference can make a world of difference for defendants.

For individuals facing drug trafficking charges, seeking appropriate legal guidance can help make their situation clearer. Even with sentencing reform improving the outlook for certain defendants, it is best to avoid criminal consequences altogether when possible.