President Trump has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act, passed nearly a year ago, as one of his administration’s chief bipartisan achievements. But a rift has opened between the White House allies who supported the law and the Justice Department officials now working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it, the Washington Post reports. In the vast majority of cases reviewed by the Post, judges have disagreed with the Justice Department’s interpretation of how to handle crack-cocaine cases. But, with some contradictory rulings and other courts waiting for appellate court guidance, the flow of First Step Act releases has been frozen in some areas, leaving hundreds of petitioners — the vast majority of whom are black — in federal prison, defense attorneys say.
The First Step Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation, has led to the release of more than 3,000 inmates. But federal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for crack-cocaine sentence reductions are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to reincarcerate offenders who have already been released under the First Step Act. The department has told federal prosecutors that when determining whether to challenge an application for early release they should consider not the amount of crack an inmate was convicted of having or trafficking, but rather the amount that court records suggest they may have actually had, which is often much larger. A Justice spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, defended the department’s interpretation, though he declined to discuss the department’s guidance to prosecutors. “DOJ is pushing against the will of the people, the will of Congress, the will of the president,” said Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network, who worked with Congress and the White House to pass the law.