In North Carolina, the First Step Act has the potential to make a positive impact on the lives of many North Carolinians with criminal felony offenses and those currently serving sentences in prison. This bill was recently signed into law and brings with it many changes people should be aware of.
Here’s what you need to know about the First Step Act and what it means for drug crime sentencing in North Carolina.
The Federal First Step Act
Before discussing the North Carolina First Step Act, it’s important to discuss the Federal First Step Act. While these two pieces of legislation may be named the same and even address some of the same issues, they are not the same thing.
In 2018, the Federal First Step Act was passed and signed into law. This law seeks to grant relief to certain criminal defendants. The type of relief offered is varied, but it includes some of these things:
- Reduction in certain sentences
- The housing of convicts in facilities close to their families
- Compassionate release
A Second Step Act is also in the works but has not become law yet.
North Carolina’s First Step Act
The First Step Act that was just signed into law in June 2020 in North Carolina is not as expansive as the federal law. Its main purpose is to serve as a type of safety that would allow the courts in North Carolina not to impose mandatory minimum sentencing in some drug trafficking cases. It would allow prosecutors in the state to impose a sentence within the state guidelines based on the offense’s classification.
Who Benefits from the First Step Act?
North Carolina’s First Step Act is meant to help people convicted of drug trafficking or conspiracy to commit drug trafficking. These crimes usually bring with them a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 months. This act can be retroactive in many cases, providing those serving mandatory minimum sentences of three years to file a motion to have their sentence altered.
It has the potential to help people serving mandatory minimum sentences that were triggered by the smallest amount of drugs to have their sentences reduced. In these cases, motions can be filed to help reduce sentences as long as certain criteria are met.
The First Step Act is not applicable to everyone. In order for it to be applied to a case, all of these criteria must be met:
- The defendant accepts responsibility for the crime
- The defendant does not have a record of prior felony drug convictions
- There were no threats of violence, and no firearms or other deadly weapons involved in the crime currently being sentenced
- The defendant has no prior record of crimes that involved firearms or other deadly weapons in the commission of the crime they were convicted of
- The defendant admits they have a substance abuse issue
- There was the successful completion of a court-approved drug treatment program by the defendant
- Any mandatory minimum sentence would be considered a substantial injustice
- It is not necessary for the safety of the public for a mandatory minimum sentence to be imposed
- The sentence is solely for conspiracy to commit trafficking or trafficking as the result of a drug possession
- The evidence that the defendant ever engaged in the manufacture, sale, transport, or delivery of a controlled substance or intended to sell, deliver, transport, or manufacture drugs is not substantial
- To the best of their knowledge, the defendant has provided reasonable assistance in identifying, arresting, or convicting any accessories, principals, accomplices or co-conspirators in their crimes
- The defendant is being sentenced for conspiracy to commit trafficking or trafficking merely for possession, not for the manufacture, transport, sale, or delivery of drugs
How the Act Works
In order for the First Step Act to be considered in a case, a Motion of Appropriate Relief needs to be filed. This motion is meant to correct errors that may have occurred before, during, or after a criminal proceeding or trial. The state then has 60 days to respond to the motion and a Superior Court Judge will conduct a hearing to help determine the outcome of the motion.
If someone qualifies under the First Step Act, then it allows a judge to disregard the rules surrounding mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. This certainly doesn’t decriminalize drugs, but it can help people who are currently charged as drug traffickers due to small amounts of drugs to avoid excessive sentencing.