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First Steps Act may change mandatory sentencing, other rules

Some people in Maryland who are serving a jail or prison sentence may have their sentences shortened or receive other benefits if a bill known as the First Step Act passes through Congress. One thing the bill will do is address the disparities in sentencing between people convicted of drug-related charges involving cocaine and those involving crack.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act addressed this issue, which has been one of racial disparity. The First Step Act will make it retroactive. Prosecutors will be involved in the process that will require prisoners to petition and return to court. The act will also increase the ability of judges to use their discretion when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines by expanding to include people with minimal criminal histories. Furthermore, it will make some automatic sentences less severe.

It would bring in a number of other changes, some of which are already supposed to be enforced by the Bureau of Prisons but are not. It will expand opportunities for training and education of inmates, prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners, allow more opportunities for elderly or terminally ill inmates to be released, and place prisoners within 500 miles of their families or homes among other provisions.

Despite these potential reforms, people who are convicted of crimes may still face serious consequences. Whatever the nature of the accusations are, a person may want to discuss what kind of criminal defense might be available with an attorney. For example, an attorney may call evidence into question. Certain types of forensic evidence might be mishandled or interpreted differently while eyewitness accounts may be inaccurate. Evidence or the entire case might be dismissed if the person's rights were violated during the investigation. Another possibility may be a plea bargain, in which a person pleads guilty for a lighter sentence.

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