In late 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which became law when the President signed it on December 21, 2018. Although it is literally just a first step in the process of true criminal justice reform, the Act nevertheless contains a number of very significant reforms for people involved in the federal criminal justice system. Here are a few highlights:
— The First Step Act restricts the types of prior drug felonies that can be used to enhance sentences for drug offenses under federal law. Under prior law, any prior drug felony could be used to enhance sentences. Now, only a “serious drug felony” can be used to enhance a sentence. A “serious drug felony” is defined as one for which the person actually served a term of imprisonment of more than 12 months within 15 years of the current offense.
— The First Step Act substantially reduces the mandatory minimum penalties applicable to many drug crimes.
— The Act broadens the applicability of the “safety valve” provision in federal sentencing law, which permits courts to sentence some defendants to less than the mandatory minimum for their offense if the defendant meets certain criteria. The new law allows some offenders with significantly higher criminal history scores to obtain the benefits of the safety valve provision in certain circumstances.
— The First Step Act prohibits “stacking” of 924(c) charges. A violation of 18 USC 924(c) occurs when someone uses a firearm in the course of another crime. A first offense has a mandatory minimum of 5 years, which must be served consecutively to any other sentence. With a second offense, the mandatory minimum jumps to 25 years. Under prior law, a person could be subject to the 25 year minimum if the government could prove the person had used a gun twice in two separate crimes, even if the person had not previously been charged and convicted of the first crime before they were charged with the second. Now, there has to be a conviction for one 924(c) charge in a separate indictment before someone can be subjected to the enhanced mandatory minimum. In other words, the enhanced minimum cannot be applied where the government “stacks” multiple 924(c) charges in one indictment.