Graham Stanley was a drug user with no criminal background. At 25-years-old, he was caught and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of between 14.5 and 17.5 years in North Carolina prison.

Ten-and-a-half years later, he is still incarcerated, and his mother, Tammy Stanley, is pushing for the North Carolina First Step Act, legislation which would give judges more discretion in how they handle drug cases like Graham’s.

Senate Bill 404 would “increase judicial discretion in sentencing for drug trafficking offenses.” The bill isn’t soft on crime, but it does address critical concerns about incarcerated, drug-addicted individuals, said Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. Steinburg, an outspoken advocate of criminal justice reform, is the legislation’s primary sponsor.

The bill mirrors bipartisan federal legislation passed and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. Congress’ First Step Act eased mandatory minimum sentences under federal law, increased “good time credits” to help well-behaved inmates reduce their sentences, and bumped up “earned time credits” for inmates who participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs.

A large portion of North Carolina’s prison population “coincides with opioid abuse and drug abuse, where treatment would probably be the answer, and not incarceration,” Steinburg told reporters during an April 16 news conference.

S.B. 404 would benefit people like Graham, who have no criminal background and limited involvement in actual drug trafficking.

At the time of Graham’s sentencing, the judge even said “‘this punishment was too harsh for the crime,’” Tammy said.

The First Step Act was filed March 28, and has been sitting in the Senate Rules Committee since April 1. Steinburg hopes to “create an appetite” for the bill among Senate leaders before the May 9 crossover deadline, when the Senate and House can consider only bills sent to them by the other body unless there’s tax funding involved.

“It is my job — and the other committee chairpersons’ jobs — to convince leadership that this is very much needed, this is not going soft on crime, this is doing what’s right,” he said. “For a bill to be sitting in rules at this juncture is not all that unusual. … We are going to do everything we can to get this bill heard.”

North Carolina should give judges the opportunity to look at each individual case — instead of using a one-size-fits-all-mentality, Steinburg said. About 25% of those in North Carolina’s prison system were sentenced for drug offenses, he added.

“Are you a user who needs help, or are you pushing drugs? Are you part of an organized ring? If that is the case, then I have no pity for those individuals, and this bill is not to address those folks. These are people who are addicted. Who are ill. Who need treatment.”

“And they’re not going to get that treatment in the prison system.”