Federal public defenders in Baltimore have begun reviewing hundreds of drug cases to identify inmates eligible for early release under a bill in Congress to reform prison terms.
Called the “First Step Act,” the bill passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, and the House is expected to pass it this week. President Donald Trump said he will sign it into law, calling the legislation “historic.”
The bill aims to expand rehabilitation programs for nonviolent drug dealers and users. It gives federal judges more discretion during sentencing and it redresses an old discrepancy between prison terms for those possessing crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
The cocaine provision alone could shorten prison terms for 100 to 200 men and women convicted in federal courts in Maryland, said James Wyda, the state’s federal public defender.
Nationwide, more than 180,000 men and women are held in federal prisons, but that’s less than 10 percent of the total U.S. prison population. Most people are tried in state courts and locked up in state prisons. It’s unclear how many Marylanders would be eligible for early release under the First Step Act.
Wyda called the legislation a modest step.
“It’s a little bit of hope in a system that can feel pretty hopeless,” he said. “We need much more dramatic reform.”
The bill, however, already has caused a stir behind bars.
“I have clients who are reaching out to me from the jails,” said Marshall T. Henslee, a federal defense attorney in Baltimore. “They want to know what to do, like do we have to have a motion? What happens? How does it apply?”
In Washington, the bill has won over both Democrats and Republicans. Trump even tweeted about it.
“...This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it,” the president wrote on Twitter. “In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved.”
The legislation's broad aim is to minimize the warehousing of prisoners and make it easier for inmates to succeed once released. While some law enforcement groups support the bill, others expressed concern that it could release dangerous criminals back into society.
The First Step Act comes on the heels of statewide criminal justice reform signed two years ago by Gov. Larry Hogan. The state bill formalized a shift away from the austere policies of the late-20th-century war on drugs. The bill reduced prison terms for some drug crimes as state lawmakers aimed to steer addicts into rehab, not prison.
The federal courts and prisons, however, are reserved for the most serious crimes. A federal conviction brings stiffer penalties because there’s no chance for parole or suspended sentences. Those convicted federally also face mandatory minimum sentences.
“They’re repeat offenders or they’re the ones that are the biggest offenders,” said Bob Bushman, president of the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, which has opposed the First Step Act.
“It gives the biggest break to the biggest drug offenders,” Bushman said.
The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys has opposed the federal bill as well.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore declined to comment.
The First Step Act also would reduce a mandatory minimum prison term from life to 25 years for some drug offenders convicted three times, known as the “three strikes” law.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how unhappy I was as a judge having to sentence people to life who had some record of a previous offense that they got sometimes as minors,” said Alexander Williams Jr., a retired U.S. District judge in Baltimore. “This is a first step toward improving what I consider a total unjust situation.”
His views were echoed by Baltimore Solicitor Andrew Davis, a former judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals. Davis said he had argued against harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
The legislation allows about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
It also allows well-behaved prisoners to be released one week early for each year they serve behind bars. An inmate serving a 10-year sentence could be released 70 days earlier than under the current law.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the change would save $414 million over the coming decade.
Some 1,200 federal prisoners are held in Western Maryland at the Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland. The state, however, runs 24 prison across Maryland with more than 18,000 prisoners last year.
The “First Step Act” brings small but necessary change in Maryland, said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminal justice professor at the University of Baltimore.
“I’m not going to thumb my nose up,” he said. “For people who are prison reformers, let’s be thankful for what we get. Let’s call it a victory.”