Supreme Court Shatters Hopes for Shorter Sentences

Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

The Supreme Court recently dealt a major blow to thousands of federal inmates seeking shorter prison sentences. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected an appeal from a convicted meth dealer that could have allowed prisoners to apply for reduced sentences under the First Step Act.

The ideologically divided ruling shut the door on sentence reductions for many nonviolent drug offenders. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the inmate failed to meet all criteria to qualify for relief under the law.

Supreme Court Rules Against Drug Dealer Seeking Shorter Sentence

The Supreme Court’s decision today crushed the hopes of potentially thousands of inmates currently serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

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In a 6-3 ruling, the court denied Mark Pulsifer, who pleaded guilty to distributing methamphetamine, the chance to benefit from a provision in the First Step Act allowing for shorter sentences in certain circumstances.

Pulsifer Safety Valve Provision Denied

Pulsifer had hoped to qualify for the Act’s “safety valve” provision, which allows judges to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum in some cases.

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However, the court found that Pulsifer did not meet all the necessary criteria, focusing on the meaning of the word “and” in the provision’s list of requirements.

Thousands More Denied Relief

In his dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the court’s narrow interpretation severely limits the intended impact of the First Step Act.

Source: Southern Coalition for Social Justice

“Adopting the government’s preferred interpretation guarantees that thousands more people in the federal justice system will be denied a chance — just a chance — at an individualized sentence,” he wrote. “For them, the First Step Act offers no hope.”

The First Step Act Faces A Blow

Advocates for criminal justice reform expressed disappointment at the ruling, which they said undermines efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Source: Flickr/Trump White House Archived

The First Step Act passed with bipartisan support in 2018, was meant to reduce harsh penalties and give judges more discretion in sentencing.

The First Step Act and Its “Safety Valve” Provision

The First Step Act of 2018 aimed to reform unfair sentencing practices that disproportionately impacted minorities and low-income communities.

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A key part of the act was the “safety valve” provision, which allowed judges more flexibility in sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenses.

Low-Level Offenders Get a Second Chance

The safety valve provision specifically targeted low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who met certain criteria, giving judges the discretion to impose shorter sentences than the mandatory minimum.

Source: Medium

Offenders had to have a limited criminal history, not use violence or own a weapon, and provide truthful information to prosecutors. If they met these requirements, judges could waive the mandatory minimum sentence.

A Strict Interpretation Limits Relief

However, in a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued a strict interpretation of the safety valve criteria that will limit relief for many inmates.

Source: Erin Schaff

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the law’s use of “and” meant offenders must meet all criteria to qualify, not just some.

Missed Opportunity for Reform

In his dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued the majority opinion “guarantees that thousands more people in the federal justice system will be denied a chance — just a chance — at an individualized sentence.”

Source: Jonathan Ernst

The court missed an opportunity to advance the bipartisan reform goals of the First Step Act. For the foreseeable future, low-level drug offenders will continue facing harsh mandatory minimums, even if they meet some of the safety valve requirements.

Dissenting Opinion: Narrow Interpretation Undermines Law’s Intent

In his dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch contended that the court took an overly narrow view of the First Step Act that defeated its purpose.

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He argued that by denying Pulsifer and defendants like him a chance at a reduced sentence, the ruling ensured that thousands of inmates would remain ineligible for relief under the law.

Dissent Argues Ruling Will Deny Shorter Sentences to Thousands

The dissent points out that the majority’s ruling requires inmates to meet all the conditions listed in the safety valve provision to qualify for a reduced sentence.

Source: Wikipedia

Gorsuch argues this sets too high a bar, as Congress meant the list of conditions to be considered in totality, not as an all-or-nothing proposition.

Curbing The Impact and Promise of Reform

The dissent worries the court’s decision will significantly curb the impact and promise of reform that the First Step Act offered.

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The ruling may end up perpetuating unfairly long sentences for those at the lowest levels of the drug trade, not just dangerous high-level traffickers.

Background on Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to hand down a minimum prison term for certain offenses, limiting their discretion.

Source: Medium

For drug offenses, Congress established mandatory minimums in the 1980s with the aim of being “tough on crime.”

Options for Prisoners Seeking Sentence Reductions Now Limited

The Supreme Court’s decision to narrowly interpret the safety valve provision means that many prisoners who may have hoped for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act will likely remain ineligible.

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Prisoners will have fewer options to petition for a reduced sentence successfully and may lose hope that the First Step Act will provide the relief and second chance that lawmakers intended when they passed the reform.

Impact on Current and Future Federal Inmates

For future federal inmates sentenced under mandatory minimum laws, the court’s decision suggests the path to a shorter sentence will be a difficult one.

Source: Christina House

Unless they meet all the conditions of the safety valve provision exactly as written, they will likely have to serve out their full mandatory minimum term, no matter the circumstances of their case.

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Sally Reed

Written by Sally Reed

Sally, a dynamic and viral writer, has taken the literary world by storm with her exceptional storytelling prowess. With an uncanny ability to tap into the collective consciousness of her readers, she crafts narratives that resonate deeply and linger long after the last word is read.

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