Criminal justice reform is a major concern to many people in Virginia, especially those dealing with drug convictions. After years of criticism about the ways disadvantaged groups are treated, the First Step Act is being considered in Congress. The bill is backed by an unusual alliance of supporters, including President Donald Trump and some law enforcement groups as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and other longtime justice reform advocates.
The bill would provide an immediate effect for nearly 2,600 federal prisoners who were convicted of offenses related to crack cocaine before 2010. In that year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the massive disparity in sentencing between people charged with crack or powder cocaine offenses. This disparity disproportionately affected African American defendants and sparked years of criticism. However, the reform did not apply retroactively. If the First Step Act becomes law, people serving time for those earlier federal crack convictions could petition a judge for release. However, prosecutors could also weigh in on the petition.
Mandatory minimum sentencing would also be reformed under the First Step Act. In addition, the "three strikes" rule that mandates a federal life sentence for people convicted of three violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes would change. Instead of a mandatory life sentence, people convicted would receive a mandatory 25-year prison sentence. Furthermore, federal judges would receive discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums in the case of people with limited criminal records. This could affect around 2,000 people each year.
Getting sentenced for a crime can be devastating on many levels. A federal felony conviction may affect one's future employment and educational prospects. However, a criminal defense attorney can help someone accused of a crime to challenge prosecution and police narratives before trial and in the courtroom. This could potentially prevent a conviction.