The First Step Act, federal legislation for criminal justice reform, was just passed by the U.S. Senate. The First Step Act is aimed at reducing our country’s mass incarceration rates by reducing sentences and offering more programs to reduce recidivism rates. Under this act, federal judges will now have more discretion in bypassing mandatory minimum sentences, allowing them to give lighter sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Other sentencing guidelines have also been reduced, including the “three strikes rule,” which has been lowered from a mandatory life sentence down to twenty-five years. A law that increases sentences for individuals in possession of a firearm while committing a crime by up to twenty-five years will no longer apply for first-time offenders. The First Step Act will also make a 2010 statute that reduced the sentencing disparity rate between crack cocaine and powder cocaine charges retroactive to extend the reduced sentencing to individuals sentenced prior to the 2010 statute. Some other benefits for current inmates include more access to job training programs and programs designed to reduce recidivism rates, an expansion of early release programs, and pregnant inmates can no longer be shackled.
While the First Step Act is federal legislation and only applies to individuals with federal charges or in the federal prison system, it is reflective of changes that some states have already been working towards for years and indicative of possible changes that may be coming in Florida. Criminal justice reform has become a political hot topic in our state, with reform bills gaining bipartisan support. A new bill titled the Florida First Step Act has been proposed which incorporates many of the reforms from the federal First Step Act. One proposed change is to increase the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $1,500. Other proposals include allowing judges more discretion in bypassing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, reducing sentences by 60 days for prisoners enrolled in educational programs, and alternatives to monetary bail for non-violent misdemeanor charges. The legislature will have the option to apply all reform laws retroactively to benefit individuals who are already sentenced.
The First Step Act’s name is indicative of the overall goal for expansive criminal justice reform throughout the country, with this legislation being considered only the first of many changes to come. With some of these changes being retroactive, and well as the possibility of new changes in the future, individuals currently facing charges as well as those already sentenced should continue to consult with experienced criminal defense attorneys who are staying informed of the newest changes to determine if any of the new laws being passed will apply to their case.