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First Step Act could move toward justice reform

For people in South Carolina who have interacted with the federal criminal justice system, the First Step Act could be of serious interest. The bill has been endorsed by a wide and unusual coalition of supporters, ranging from President Donald Trump to longtime criminal justice reform advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union. The First Step Act is widely regarded as a compromise proposal, and it has received a number of criticisms. Some say that the bill is too weak to address real flaws in the system. For those who could be affected by the legislation, it is important to understand its provisions.

One of the more immediate impacts of the bill could be felt by those with older convictions on crack cocaine charges. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the vast disparity in sentences between those convicted of powder and crack cocaine offenses. This disparity had disproportionately affected African American defendants. However, people convicted before 2010 were not affected by the reform. If the First Step Act becomes law, those affected could petition a judge for release; however, prosecutors would also be allowed to weigh in on the request.

In addition, mandatory minimum sentencing would be changed under the provisions of the bill. The federal "three strikes" law, which mandates life imprisonment after three serious felony convictions, would mandate a 25-year prison sentence instead. The bill would also give federal judges more discretion when dealing with people with minimal criminal records. Judges could exercise an exception to mandatory minimums for these defendants, a reform that could affect 2,000 people every year.

A federal criminal conviction can affect all aspects of one's life, including education, housing and employment. However, someone facing criminal charges may work with a criminal defense attorney. Legal counsel could work to challenge police and prosecution assertions in order to avoid a conviction.

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