The US Supreme Court held on Monday that sentence reduction under the First Step Act is available only if an offender’s prior conviction for a crack cocaine offense triggered a mandatory minimum sentence.
In 2018 Congress passed the First Step Act, which made previous sentencing reforms that reduced the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1, retroactive. Under this act, many drug offenders became eligible to be resentenced. However, when the act was passed, Congress had only altered the first two tiers of sentencing and not the third tier. This allowed for the Trump administration to interpret the act to mean that third-tier offenders were not eligible for resentencing. However, when the Biden administration took office, it did not share the same interpretation of the act.
In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court determined that:
an offender is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act only if he previously received a sentence for a covered offense. The act defines “covered offense” as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by” certain provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act.
Because the third tier “did not carry a mandatory minimum sentence, did not treat crack and powder cocaine offenses differently, and did not depend on drug quantity,” and thus did not qualify as previously receiving a sentence for a covered offense under the act, the court found that third-tier offenders were not eligible for resentencing under the act.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.