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Proposed bill could change some criminal justice laws

People dealing with the federal justice system in Georgia may be intrigued by reports about the First Step Act. The criminal justice reform legislation is backed by an unexpected alliance that includes President Donald Trump along with longtime reform advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill, widely understood as a compromise proposal, has been criticized for failing to take on serious reform measures as well as being soft on crime. For people who may be affected by its provisions, however, it can be important to understand the bill.

One of the most immediate effects of the bill could be felt by people serving time for federal crack cocaine convictions that predate 2010. In that year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the massive disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses, a disparity that seriously affected African American defendants. However, the reform was not retroactive, and people with prior sentences were not affected. If the First Step Act passes, people with these older convictions could petition a judge for release.

In addition, mandatory minimum sentencing would be changed under the First Step Act. Federal judges would have discretion in more cases to depart from the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. They could use the exemption in cases of people with only minor criminal histories, a change that could affect 2,000 people each year. In addition, the "three strikes" rule would be eliminated. Mandatory life sentences after three federal serious felony convictions would instead become mandatory 25-year sentences.

Someone can face serious, lifelong effects as a result of a federal felony conviction. In addition to jail time, they could lose access to housing, employment or educational opportunities. A criminal defense attorney can help a defendant facing criminal charges present a strong defense that could prevent a conviction.

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