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On the Friday Before Christmas …

When all through the House, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse: Congress enacted a major change to federal sentencing law.

It’s called the First Step Act, and you may have heard about it. Here’s a press release on it from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

What does it do? About ten things. We’ll follow up next week once we’ve analyzed the full text of the bill.

First, it creates a system that puts federal inmates into four categories according to their risk of recidivism: whether minimal, low, medium, or high. Based on your classification, you may be able to participate in programs that earn you credit toward early release. This system will come online over the next three years or so. But a lot of people won’t be eligible for it.

Second, it allows more people to escape harsh, mandatory-minimum sentences. Before, you basically had to have no criminal record at all to have any chance of being sentenced below the mandatory minimum. Now, you may still have a chance as long as your convictions were for misdemeanors generally, you don’t have too many, and none of them was for a crime of violence.

Third, it reduces some mandatory minimums in drug cases. Before, if you were looking at a ten-year minimum, and you had even one measly drug prior in your past, the government could double the minimum to twenty years. If you had two or more priors, you might be looking at life. Now, that 20-year minimum is 15 years, and the life sentence is 25 years instead. Also, the kind of prior that triggers more punishment must be a serious drug felony or a serious violent felony. They shouldn’t be measly anymore.

Fourth, it allows you to apply for a new sentence if you’re serving a sentence for crack cocaine from before 2010. That’s when they passed a law that brought such sentences more in line with those for powder cocaine. Now you can benefit from that even if your conviction was final before the law went into effect.

Fifth, it requires that you do time at a prison as close to your home as possible and within 500 miles if possible.

Sixth, if you qualify for house arrest, it requires that you serve as much of your sentence there as possible.

Seventh, it expands the use of compassionate release for the elderly and terminally ill.

Eighth, it forbids the use of restraints on women during pregnancy, labor, and postpartum.

Ninth, it limits solitary confinement for juveniles.

Tenth, it renews a federal grant program that helps people find jobs, housing, and other services once they leave prison and return to society.

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