Gov. Cooper signs bill increasing judicial discretion for low-level drug crimes

On Friday, Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 511, also known as “the First Step Act,” into law.

The new law increases judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing for certain drug crimes by allowing judges to bypass mandatory minimums when sentencing drug offenders whom prosecutors can currently charge as drug traffickers, but who in reality had no intent to sell or otherwise distribute drugs.

The defendants this bill helps must meet certain conditions, including successfully completing a substance abuse treatment program and providing “reasonable assistance” to prosecutors and law enforcement in the “identification, arrest, or conviction” of any accomplices or co-conspirators. They cannot have been previously convicted of a felony.

HB 511 was supported by lawmakers, police officers, and criminal justice reform advocates from both sides of the aisle.

Cooper signed the First Step Act into law one day after signing the Second Chance Act, marking two wins for criminal justice reform advocates.

Like the Second Chance Act, the First Step Act was introduced last year—by Representative Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) in March—and after passing unanimously in the House and Senate, was referred to the House for concurrence on October 24, 2019 and stayed there until June 11, 2020. The House passed the bill unanimously on June 17 and sent it to the governor the same day.

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