Criminal justice issues and sentencing reform have garnered a great deal of attention in Virginia and across the country. An unlikely coalition is supporting one bill in Congress to address some of the problems that have tainted the system, the First Step Act. The bill has bipartisan support and is backed by, among others, the American Civil Liberties Union and President Trump. Despite presenting only a modest reform agenda that fails to address many of the key concerns raised by justice reform advocates, opponents of the bill have continued to say that its adoption presents a threat to safety.
The First Step Act would reform some aspects of federal sentencing, including potentially shortening the sentences of some people who have served lengthy prison terms for drug convictions. While a previous bill reformed sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine charges years ago, people remain jailed under sentences imposed before the reform. This bill would allow those people to petition for their release under a retroactive application of the sentencing reform.
The early release provisions of the bill would affect about 1.5 percent of federal prisoners, themselves only 10 percent of the overall prison population. In addition, no one would be automatically released. Instead, the Bureau of Prisons would determine who is eligible for a shortened sentence under its provisions. Still, while many people across the country have said that the "war on drugs" and associated harsh sentencing laws have been devastating for communities of color in particular, some members of Congress continue to say that drug laws are too lax.
A conviction on drug charges can have serious consequences throughout people's lives, affecting their ability to access housing, education or employment. People accused of drug offenses may work with a criminal defense attorney to present a defense before trial and in the courtroom.