U.S. Supreme Court

In unusual lineup, SCOTUS rules for pro se prisoner who sought lower sentence under First Step Act

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The U.S. Supreme Court split along unusual lines when it ruled Monday for a prisoner who filed a pro se motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.

At issue was whether judges considering such motions can consider intervening changes of law and fact. The high court ruled that they can in a 5-4 decision, Concepcion v. United States.

Nothing in the First Step act prevents judges from considering intervening changes, such as new sentencing guidelines and good behavior in prison, the Supreme Court said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.

The prisoner, Carlos Concepcion, pleaded guilty to distributing five or more grams of crack cocaine. He was sentenced in 2009 to 19 years in prison. At that time, sentences for crack cocaine were punished the same as crimes involving 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. Concepcion was also deemed to be a career offender, which increased his recommended sentence under the guidelines.

A 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The First Step Act, signed into law in 2018, allowed offenders to apply for retroactive application of the 2010 law.

Concepcion initially sought a lower sentence in federal district court without the help of a lawyer. But he was represented by counsel in a reply brief after the government opposed his motion.

The lawyer argued that Concepcion should no longer be considered a career offender because one of his prior convictions was vacated. The lawyer also argued that Concepcion had shown evidence of rehabilitation through participation in drug and vocational programs in prison, through his spiritual growth, and by his stable reentry plan.

The government, however, said Concepcion had shown “troubling behaviors” in prison, such as fighting and interfering with staff.

A federal judge found that Concepcion’s sentence would fall within the same guidelines range under the Fair Sentencing Act and refused to change the sentence. The judge didn’t consider the lawyer’s arguments about other changes based on the understanding that the court must place itself in the time frame of the original sentencing when considering First Step Act motions.

The Supreme Court ruled for Concepcion. Federal courts historically exercised broad discretion at sentencing, and that discretion carries forward to later proceedings that may modify an original sentence, Sotomayor said.

“Such discretion is bounded only when Congress or the Constitution expressly limits the type of information a district court may consider in modifying a sentence,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Congress in the First Step Act simply did not contravene this well-established sentencing practice,” Sotomayor said. “Nothing in the text and structure of the First Step Act expressly, or even implicitly, overcomes the established tradition of district courts’ sentencing discretion.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh dissented in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.

“The text of the First Step Act authorizes district courts to reduce sentences based only on changes to the crack-cocaine sentencing ranges, not based on other unrelated changes that have occurred since the original sentencing,” Kavanaugh wrote.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “The status of the First Step Act one year later”

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