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The First Step Act Applies the Fair Sentencing Act Retroactively – What Does That Mean?

The First Step Act, passed last December, has several provisions in it that fix some errors of the past.  The most prominent of which came from the initial choice by Congress, back in the 1980s, to impose different sentences for crack cocaine offenses compared to powder cocaine offenses.

Specifically, back when the “war on drugs” was in full swing, stricter penalties were required for crack cocaine.  The sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine had the effect of imposing longer sentences on African-American defendants compared to defendants of other races.

In 2010, the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses was only partially rectified through the Fair Sentencing Act.  The Fair Sentencing Act, passed on August 3, 2010, generally required that sentences for powder and crack cocaine offenses be the same. However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applied to offenders who were sentenced after August 3, 2010.  That meant that anyone sentenced before that date had to continue to live with the inherent unfairness of disparate sentences between crack and powder cocaine.

First Step Act

First Step Act Applies the Fair Sentencing Act Retroactively

The First Step Act, however, removed that unfairness.  It mandates that the Fair Sentencing Act apply retroactively.  That means that the Fair Sentencing Act now applies to those offenders who were sentenced before August 3, 2010.  This welcomed change has already resulted in sentence reductions for 1,691 inmates who previously could not take advantage of the Fair Sentencing Act.

Now that the First Step Act requires that the Fair Sentencing Act apply to anyone convicted of a cocaine offense, there are some important things to know about how an individual can obtain a sentence reduction.  This blog will answer some of the most important questions involving the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act.

Who is eligible for a sentence reduction now that the Fair Sentencing Act applies retroactively?

Any defendant who was sentenced for a crack cocaine offense before August 3, 2010 – the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act – and did not receive the benefits of the sentencing changes in the Fair Sentencing Act is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.

In fact, Section 2 of the Fair Sentencing Act increased the quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger a mandatory minimum penalty.  Also, Section 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act removed entirely the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. Those two changes alone could significantly reduce an inmate’s sentence.  Be sure to contact your attorney, or an experienced sentencing attorney like Brandon Sample, Esq., to see if you can have your sentence reduced under the First Step Act.

Are there any limitations on eligibility for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act?

Yes.  A court is not required to reduce a person’s sentence under the First Step Act.  There must be a review of the merits of any motion to reduce sentence.  Also, a defendant who has already taken advantage of the sentencing changes in the Fair Sentencing Act cannot ask for additional reductions.  Further, a defendant who previously filed a motion for a reduction in sentence under the First Step Act and was denied after a review on the merits also cannot relitigate a reduction motion.

Can a person who was sentenced as a Career Offender receive a sentence reduction under the First Step Act?

Yes, as long as the maximum sentence that applies to that person under the Fair Sentencing Act is lowerthan the maximum sentence that was in effect at the time of the person’s original sentence.

Do sentencing guidelines play a role on a motion for reduction in sentence under the First Step Act?

There are a number of factors that a court must consider when imposing a sentence on an individual in federal court.  Those factors, listed at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), include things such as the nature and circumstances of the offense, the seriousness of the offense, and the need for deterrence.  Those factors are applicable when a person makes a motion for the court to reduce his or her sentence under the First Step Act.

Specifically, after a motion for a reduction of sentence is made, the court has the option to decide whether to hold a full resentencing hearing, or conduct a more limited resentencing.  In either case, the court will conduct a sentencing hearing, and therefore the guidelines and policy statements in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), as well as any other factors that courts need to consider during a routine sentencing hearing would apply to a resentencing hearing under the First Step Act.

Who can ask for a reduction in sentence under the First Step Act?

The motion for a reduction in sentence does not have to be initiated by an inmate.  While an inmate who believes he or she is eligible for a reduction in sentence under the First Step Act can certainly initiate the process, the process can also be initiated by others.

In particular, the Chief Judge of each district – who can obtain a list of inmates eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act – is able to, on their own motion, reduce sentences for those eligible inmates.  A reduction in sentence motion can also be initiated by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or the attorney for the Government.

Conclusion

Fortunately, the First Step Act has rectified an injustice relating to a disparity in penalties for crack vs. powder cocaine offenses that has persisted for several decades.  Now, any inmate who was sentenced before the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act (August 3, 2010) and who did not already receive the benefit of the Fair Sentencing Act is eligible for a reduction in sentence.  Contact Brandon Sample, Esq., who has extensive experience with sentence reduction matters, to learn more about your options for a sentence reduction.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

1 Comment

  1. Torrence on October 26, 2019 at 4:14 am

    Excellent information.

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