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First Step Act Relief Shows Modest Results

As expected, the largest group of prisoners receiving relief were those convicted of drug offenses under the harsh laws passed during the failed “war on drugs.” The First Step Act applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively to 2,387 drug offenders in prison, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (“USSC”), with an average sentence reduction of about six years.

The Act also changed who qualifies for the mandatory penalty under 21 U.S.C. § 851 for repeat drug offenders. In 2019, 152 fewer defendants qualified for the penalty than in 2018, according to the USSC. Around 240 drug offenders also benefited from the reduced penalty, which cut the mandatory 20 years for a single drug prior conviction to 15 years and mandatory life for two drug priors to 25 years. The change to the § 851 penalty, however, was not made retroactive by the First Step Act, which is the reason for the lower numbers.

More defendants also qualified for the “safety valve,” which allows a sentencing judge to go below the mandatory minimum when sentencing nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants received the safety valve under these changes in 2019, with an average sentence of 53 months.

The First Step Act also cuts the mandatory consecutive sentences for “stacked “firearm convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). While also not retroactive, preventing the government from stacking 25-year sentences under § 924(c) helped at least 205 defendants receive lower overall sentences in 2019.

Compassionate release saw some changes under the First Step Act, resulting in a five-fold increase in prisoners released under this avenue. This was a direct result of allowing prisoners to finally go to the courts themselves when the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) has refused to file the necessary motion. In 2019, 145 prisoners were released under compassionate release, compared to just around 30 in 2018 when it was entirely up to the BOP to file the motion in court.

Finally, the clarification of the way the BOP calculates good conduct time resulted in more than 7,000 shorter sentences. The BOP’s convoluted method of calculating good conduct time had been criticized for years, which held federal prisoners in custody beyond 85 percent of their imposed sentence. The First Step Act corrects the problem, meaning thousands of federal prisoners had their release dates moved up. 


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