What the First Step Act Means for Criminal Justice Reform

Posted by Tom McMahon on December 21, 2018

On Tuesday, the First Step Act passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, 87-12. If it passes the vote in the House of Representatives, as experts predict it will, then President Trump has pledged to sign it into law.

Proponents of the Bill praise it as sensible criminal justice reform. Among its provisions, it will offer a number of changes aimed at inmate rehabilitation: more good-time credits to federal prisoners, more training and work opportunities, and the chance to earn money for escrow accounts that would service post-release expenses. There are a number of sentencing reforms as well, including giving judges more flexibility on “mandatory minimums,” where the conviction is for nonviolent drug crime. Importantly, estimates are that this relaxation could result in the reduction of sentences for 2,000 people every year. SB3649 also addresses the disparity in charges for crack and powder cocaine offenses which have historically disproportionately targeted black Americans – finally making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for 2,600 inmates. In addition, it also promises to ban the shackling of pregnant inmates.

However, the Bill is not without its criticisms. Backed by the Koch brothers, the Bill is designed to benefit the private prison companies, such as the multibillion-dollar giant GEO that currently runs the detention facilities warehousing immigrant families in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. By increasing the use of electronic monitoring  of those released, it will increase their bottom line. The bill also prevents sentence reduction for those sentenced for violent crimes, excluding them from participation in the same rehabilitative programs. And though the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences prospectively, it does not have any retroactive effect on those already serving such sentences. Finally, excepting extreme circumstances, the shackling of pregnant women has been banned in federal prison since 2008. The bill's promise to solve this 'problem,' is disingenuous. Indeed, according to the Marshall Project, many of the provisions in the act are merely attempts to enact policies that are already in place – but have simply been ignored by the Bureau of Prisons. 

There are also significant limitations to the scope of the Bill as well. It does not remove the threat of federal prosecution in states where cannabis is legal, or lift restrictions on federally insured banks, currently barred from working with cannabusinesses. Senator Cory Gardner had worked diligently to add such an amendment, but he was blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is also worth nothing that the roughly 2 million prisoners in local and state custody will not be affected because it only addresses the federal inmate population of approximately 181,000Ultimately, the bill may indeed be a good “first step,” but meaningful criminal justice reform still has a long way to go.  

Cannabis and the 2018 Midterm Elections

Posted by Erin Williams on November 5, 2018
The 2018 Midterm Elections are perhaps the most important in recent memory. They are the first, best, and last hope the Democrats have to set a blue wave through Congress and provide some much-needed resistance to the actions of the Trump administration. However, the excitement has overshadowed the conversation on cannabis. 
 
On   November 6th, Michigan and North Dakota will vote on statewide measures to legalize recreational cannabis. Meanwhile, Utah and Missouri will consider legalizing medical marijuana.  
 
Although California is one of the most pot-friendly states in the nation, the future of the legal cannabis industry does depend on a few races. 
 
In the governor's race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is predicted to beat Governor Jerry Brown. Gov. Brown has said unflattering things about cannabis users in the past. However, in recent months he has approved a bill giving   privacy  to recreational marijuana users and signed another bill that   expunged many marijuana-related crimes. Still, Lt. Gov. Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, is the frontrunner and a longstanding supporter of cannabis reform.
 
For the U.S. Senate, eyes are on Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) to be re-elected. Feinstein has evolved her position over the years from supporting the war on drugs to supporting states' rights to set cannabis policy. It is also worth mentioning that as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Feinstein recently co-sponsored a bill that would deschedule cannabis. 
 
Another incumbent, U.S. House Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) faces Democratic challenger Harley Rouda.  Rep. Rohrabacher was one of the creators of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which protected legal medical marijuana users from federal prosecution. But Rohrabacher's vocal support of Russia and Putin could lead to his defeat   on Tuesday. A recent   New York Times  poll  shows Rohrabacher and Rouda tied. Rouda has not come forward with any cannabis policy and is assumed to be neutral.
 
For more information on cannabis this midterm season, Leafly has an excellent   piece. Find your polling place   here
 
And from everyone at Margolin & Lawrence, GO VOTE!
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This blog is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such. The possession, use, and/or sale of marijuana is illegal under federal law.