Legal Review: Prisoners Freed Because of ‘First Step Act’ Fighting to Stay Free

By Criminal Defense Attorney Allen Yates of Yates & Wheland

In May of 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that received special attention from White House advisor Jared Kushner.

This act implemented prison reforms that impacted many prisoners’ sentences. One of the most significant reforms in this bill was the reduced sentencing of drug offenders, with an emphasis on inmates who were in jail because of selling crack cocaine (many of whom were African-American). Many individuals saw their sentences slashed, with over 1,200 prisoners with drug charges freed. The act also allows inmates who are in jail because of selling crack cocaine to ask judges for a reduced sentence.

Furthermore, 3,100 prisoners have been slated to be released because of additional reforms included in the First Step Act, mostly due to time off for good behavior. However, 81 of these 3,100 prisoners are still having to fight the Federal government over their release. Additionally, 900 of the freed inmates were sent to immigration services because of criminal and deportation charges.

With the public confused as to why the Justice Department is seeking to send certain people back to prison after releasing them, they released an official statement explaining their reasoning: to ensure that the prisoners who received reduced sentences were not being treated more leniently than anyone currently facing prosecution for drug charges.

In the prosecution’s attempt to bring 81 of the prisoners back to prison, they combined all drug-related charges from each prisoner’s case, including any drugs that were found during the investigation and not just what was found on their person or vehicle–which is typically how many drug charges occur. The difference in the years of incarceration between these two drug charges can be vast, which would have a serious impact on how a case proceeds.

Since the freeing of these prisoners as a result of the First Step Act, prosecutors have only been able to succeed in the reversal of 9 of the 81 cases they have targeted to reverse. Despite this, prosecutors are undeterred. They’ve appealed three of the court decisions to date, and hope to appeal 12 more in the coming months.

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