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New Sentencing Panel Giving Top Priority To First Step Act Issues

Federal judges could soon have clearer guidance on when to grant inmates compassionate release after the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to prioritize implementing the 2018 First Step Act. The panel held its first public meeting Friday since it lost its quorum nearly four years ago, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of Mississippi, who now chairs the panel, called implementing the law through revisions to the federal sentencing guidelines the commission's "top focus," Reuters reports. The Senate in August confirmed seven new members nominated by President Biden, giving the panel little time to work before a May 1 deadline to submit any guidelines amendments to Congress.

"Justice will be front and center in all that we do," Reeves said. "We know much is expected of this commission, beyond the immediate priorities, and we are eager to dig in and do the important work that has been entrusted to us." The panel lost its quorum a month after President Trump signed First Step in December 2018, which was aimed at easing harsh sentencing for nonviolent offenders and at reducing recidivism. That meant the depleted commission was unable to revise advisory federal guidelines that judges must consult when sentencing defendants, leading to conflicting interpretations and different outcomes nationally. Reeves cited the need to provide courts guidance on a provision that for the first time allows federal inmates to file appeals in court of actions by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons denying or neglecting their requests for compassionate release. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, requests for judges to grant compassionate release from prisons and reduce sentences for "extraordinary and compelling reasons" surged, with 7,014 motions filed in fiscal year 2020.


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