First Step Act Gives New Sentencing Flexibility

This October, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would give judges more control over specific nonviolent crimes. The bill, called the North Carolina First Step Act, follows the federal First Step Act to reduce the number of prison sentences that turn into life sentences.

Since the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes required judges to pass a minimum sentence for possessing certain amounts of controlled or illegal substances. Yet, these mandatory minimums do not always make sense. For example, a person caught in possession of 3.9 grams of heroin would receive at minimum six to 12 months in jail. But a person caught with 4.0 grams of heroin would face a minimum of 70 months in jail due to the mandatory minimum sentence for a Class F felony. The difference of just one gram meant spending over five times longer in prison!

The new First Step Act

Under the new First Step Act, judges have the option to offer more leniency for those charged with drug crimes. Judges will be able to take into account:

  • Whether the person is a first-time offender
  • Whether the crime was violent or nonviolent
  • How many points are currently on the person’s criminal record

For those who qualify, the First Step Act could drastically reduce sentences for an initial, nonviolent drug crime. This will allow judges to display more understanding for unique circumstances and exercise more judgment instead of a one-size-fits-all sentencing approach.

Current convictions

The First Step Act also applies to any person convicted of a drug crime in the past 36 months. Individuals who need to apply to have their sentence reduced should seek legal counsel for help filing the Motion for Appropriate Relief.

Many advocates for this reform also support more rehabilitative measures for those convicted of drug crimes. They recognize that many individuals caught on a drug crime are also addicted to the substances they are dealing. Addiction recovery programs have started to play a larger role in efforts to move people away from the prison system.

Overall, North Carolina seeks to reduce the number of people who stay incarcerated after one mistake.

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