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First Step Act seeks to reform federal criminal sentencing rules

After decades of tough-on-crime laws and mandatory minimum sentences that sent people in New York to prison for years, the First Step Act marks a transition in attitudes toward criminal sentencing guidelines. The bill won approval in the U.S. Senate on a vote of 82 to 12. Although critics call it a "prisoner release bill," the legislation, if it succeeds in becoming law, would provide sentencing relief to people convicted for crack cocaine offenses prior to 2010.

In 2010, the federal government corrected disparities in criminal sentences that required longer sentences for crack cocaine convictions compared to regular cocaine convictions. People convicted before the reform, however, remain in prison under the previous rules. If signed into the law, the First Step Act would grant prisoners convicted on crack cocaine offenses the ability to petition for release.

In addition to providing retroactive relief to people serving excessively long sentences, the act would establish a time credit system for prisoners trying to better themselves. Those who participate in certain work, training or education programs could earn reductions in their sentences. The act continues to attract bipartisan support, and advocacy groups, like the Sentencing Group and American Civil Liberties Union, hope that it will lead to more sentencing reforms.

When the police arrest a person, the criminal justice system will likely apply as many criminal charges as possible. To counteract strong prosecution, a person could consult a criminal defense attorney. Legal counsel might succeed at securing the defendant's release on bail and then look for weaknesses in the evidence. Issues like an unlawful search and seizure could provide an opportunity for an attorney to challenge the validity of evidence. Efforts like this could position a defendant to negotiate a plea bargain with a lenient sentence.

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