The First Step Act, signed into law in December 2018, was significant legislation in the evolution of criminal justice reform. The changes in the sentencing laws imposed by this legislation affected four main areas: (1) an expansion of the application of the Safety Valve, (2) “stacking” of firearm offenses under 18 U.S.C. 924(c), (3) filing of statutory drug enhancements under 18 U.S.C. 851, and (4) calculating gain time.
The Safety Valve is a provision in the First Step Act, Sentencing Reform Act, and U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines that allows a sentence below the statutory minimum for certain nonviolent, non-managerial drug offenders with little or no criminal history. The reforms of the First Step Act are not retroactive but they expanded the applicable “Criminal History” points required to qualify from 1 to 4. However, there are several exceptions to the new 4-point applicability. For example, a 3-point conviction (a prior sentence of more than 13 months of imprisonment) disqualifies someone from the Safety Valve. Additionally, some “violent offenses” that score 2-points under the Sentencing Guidelines can still disqualify a defendant from receiving the Safety Valve, even if they have less than 4-points. Defining a “violent offense” is a complicated legal issue that requires someone with extensive federal criminal experience.
Federal firearm offenses and sentences under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) involve the possession or use of a firearm during certain drug offenses or violent crimes . The penalties under this section carry mandatory minimum sentences consecutive to the sentence received on the underlying offense. The First Step Act made significant changes to these laws. However, these sentencing reforms only apply to pending sentencings and they are not retroactive. The most significant change is that there is no more “stacking” of these offenses as they were once used by prosecutors. For example, before the First Step Act, federal prosecutors would charge multiple 924(c) violations and a conviction on the second 924(c) resulted in a 25-year mandatory minimum consecutive sentence. The First Step Act now requires a prior conviction under 924(c) before a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence can be imposed. Prosecutors can still “stack” 924(c) charges but the 25-year sentence cannot be imposed unless a defendant has a prior final 924(c) conviction that has become final and then commits a second or subsequent 924(c) offense.
Another significant reform of the First Step Act applies to statutory drug enhancements under 18 U.S.C. 851. An 851 enhancement must be filed by a prosecutor and, prior to the First Step Act, could only be filed based upon a prior conviction of a felony drug offense. The First Step Act changes the applicability of an 851 enhancement to those prior convictions for a “serious drug felony” but now also includes a “serious violent felony”. The First Step Act also reduced the enhanced mandatory minimum from 20 years to 15 years for certain drug convictions. There are a number of definitions and limitations on what qualifies as a “serious drug felony” or “serious violent felony” prior conviction. As a result, hiring an attorney who understands the requirements of what the qualifying prior convictions mean is important.
The First Step Act also impacts the gain time credits and new recidivism programs. However, there are a large number of offenses that, if convicted of, could disqualify you from receiving extra gain time. Some of these disqualifications include fentanyl convictions or if a defendant was an organizer, leader, manager or supervisor.
Sentencing reform is a powerful tool when properly applied. The First Step Act can have a significant impact on a defendant’s potential sentence. At Haas Law, we understand the new federal sentencing reforms of the First Step Act and we put them into action so that they can utilized in mitigating any federal criminal sentence. Contact us today at 407-755-7675 to see if we can assist you in your defense!