Breaking Down the Criminal Justice Reform in the First Step Act

January 29, 2021 GMT

02/25/2019, Dallas // KISSPR //

In December 2018, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act, which mostly involves prison reform, but also includes some sentencing reform provisions.  

The key provision of the First Step Act that relates to sentencing reform concerns the “safety valve” provision of the federal drug trafficking laws.  The safety valve allows a court to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime, and to reduce the person’s offense level under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines by two points.  

In order to qualify for the safety valve, a person must meet the following criteria:


  • Little prior criminal history.
  • The crime cannot have involved a firearm, violence, or a credible threat of violence.
  • The crime cannot have resulted in death or serious bodily injury.
  • The person cannot have been an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of the drug activity.
  • Before sentencing, the person must have truthfully told law enforcement about his or her involvement in the crime.    

The First Step Act increases the availability of the safety valve by making it easier to meet the first requirement—little prior criminal history.  Before the First Step Act, a person could have no more than one criminal history point. This generally means no more than one prior conviction in the last ten years for which the person received either probation or less than 60 days of prison time.

Section 402 of the First Step Act changes this.  Now, a person is eligible for the safety valve if, in addition to meeting requirements 2-5 above, the defendant does not have:

(A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1- point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

(B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and

(C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines.

Although the First Step Act is a good starting point, does it go far enough in terms of fixing some of the problems with federal sentencing?

Continue reading   “Understanding the Recent Federal Sentencing Reforms in the First Step Act,” or visit more criminal justice topics on their  website.    



John Helms has been a trial lawyer for more than 20 years and is a former federal prosecutor who never lost a trial or appeal. He is the founder of the Law Office of John M. Helms in Dallas, Texas, where he has handled both civil and criminal cases and is skilled at helping clients facing overlapping civil and criminal issues.

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