Incarcerated Drug Offenders Freed By First Step Act

By Paul Gaita 03/08/19

The 14 Rhode Island inmates are among an estimated 2,600 federal prisoners who may be eligible for early release under the First Step Act.

an incarcerated drug offender

Fourteen inmates in the Rhode Island prison system have gained early release under the First Step Act, The Providence Journal reports.

The federal law, passed in December 2018, provides sentencing relief to individuals convicted of crack cocaine-related charges before 2010 as a means of addressing what the Journal called "widespread acknowledgment of unfair lengthy mandatory crack-cocaine sentencing polices," which sent numerous individuals—mainly people of color—to prison, many of which under life sentences.

The 14 Rhode Island inmates are among an estimated 2,600 federal prisoners who may be eligible for early release under the First Step Act.

As Vox noted, the First Step Act makes retroactive the reforms set in place by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced a disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine sentencing handed down after the law's passage.

The law also expands the margins by which judges can avoid imposing mandatory minimum sentences and revises the "three strikes" rule so that individuals with three or more convictions, including those for drug offenses, automatically receive a 25-year sentence instead of life.

And it increases both the number of "good time credits"—which grants prisoners the opportunity to gain early release for good behavior—from 47 days to 54 days, while also allowing them to get "earned time credits" for participating in job and rehabilitation programs.

The Journal cited the case of one of the inmates, Joel Francisco, a former gang member who was sentenced to life in prison for crack cocaine trafficking in 2005. Having been twice convicted for felony drug crimes prior to his sentencing, Francisco was handed down a mandatory life sentence under then-current drug laws.

"The judge at his original sentencing was forced to impose a life sentence, despite finding that a 15-year sentence was appropriate," said public defender Olin Thompson. 

Ten days after President Trump signed the First Step Act into law on December 21, 2018, Francisco wrote to the court to request an early release under the law's guidelines.

In his request, he cited having accepted responsibility for his actions, and noted the measures he's taken to establish a life outside of his criminal past, including the 20-plus programs he's completed during his 14 years in prison, including personal growth and conflict management.

On February 5th, Judge John J. McConnell approved an agreement between Thompson and federal prosecutors, which allowed Francisco to leave prison on time served that same day.

News of his release received a wary response from police. The Journal quoted Commander Thomas Verdi, who had worked Francisco's case for years before his incarceration. "He had a propensity for violence. His nickname is Joe Crack, and [his gang] ran their operation through the use of violence."

But Thompson was quick to point out that Francisco's track record behind bars, as well his time already served, qualified him for the early release. "Even after this reduction, he still ended up serving nearly 15 years for his non-violent drug offenses. The First Step Act merely extended to him and many others the benefit of reforms to our drug laws to make them fairer, more sensible and less racially disparate."

Chief U.S. Probation Officer John G. Marshall voiced optimism for the future of individuals like Francisco.

"You're looking at life in prison and you get your life back," he said. "That's a pretty big swing. Hopefully, everybody is going to be successful."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.