Annual Meeting

House of Delegates urges Congress to fully fund, make retroactive First Step Act

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The ABA House of Delegates asked Congress on Monday to fully fund the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill passed late last year with bipartisan support.

Resolution 101, sponsored by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ABA Criminal Justice Section and the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, also urges federal lawmakers to make the First Step Act retroactive. Until that happens, it asks the president and the Department of Justice to create a program to consider commuting the sentences of federal prisoners who would be eligible for sentence reductions if the act were retroactive.

The First Step Act permits federal prisoners who qualify to shorten their sentences with “good time credits,” which they earn by participating in rehabilitation programs. It also increases the total number of such credits that prisoners can earn; expands the conditions under which federal judges may depart from mandatory minimum sentencing (the “safety valve”); and makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, retroactive.

Cynthia Orr, a former president of the NACDL and former chair of the Criminal Justice Section, yielded the floor to current NACDL President Nina Ginsberg. Ginsberg, a founding partner of DiMuro Ginsberg in Alexandria, Virginia, framed the First Step Act as a commonsense response to over-criminalization.

“[The First Step Act] is the first major step taken by the federal government toward reducing the crisis of mass incarceration,” she said. “The purpose of the act is to apply sensible sentences for crimes going forward.”

There was no opposition, and other supporters of the resolution waived their time to speak. Resolution 101 passed the House easily.

The resolution had earlier called on the DOJ to take steps toward developing risk and needs assessments for federal prisoners. Those assessments are required before an increase in the cap for “good time credits” that reduce eligible prisoners’ sentences. However, the DOJ announced its assessment tool in July, making those provisions obsolete.

Outgoing ABA President Robert Carlson praised many provisions of the First Step Act when it was signed.

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