US Supreme Court expands judicial sentencing discretion in crack cocaine cases
MarkThomas / Pixabay
US Supreme Court expands judicial sentencing discretion in crack cocaine cases

The US Supreme Court ruled Monday in Concepcion v. United States that judges should have sentencing discretion under the 2018 First Step Act and 2010 Fair Sentencing act in crack-cocaine cases. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act brought crack-cocaine sentencing more in-line with cocaine sentencing. Prior to the act, crack-cocaine sentences were far harsher than cocaine sentences, despite the similar chemical makeup of the drugs. The 2o18 First Step Act made these sentencing changes retroactive, allowing incarcerated individuals to apply for re-sentencing. 

In Concepcion, Carlos Concepcion applied for a sentence reduction but was denied. The Justice Department argued that Concepcion’s original sentence of 228 months was within the statute’s range of 188 to 235 months, meaning that district court judges are not able to adjust Concepcion’s sentence. Concepcion was sentenced as a “career offender.” However, Concepcion argued that because his other convictions have been vacated and his other convictions are not currently considered violent crimes, he should not be labeled a “career offender” and should receive a sentence reduction. He requested a new sentence of 57 to 71 months, citing extensive rehabilitation efforts.

A district court ruled that it was not able to consider these factors and dismissed Concepcion’s case. 

The Supreme Court found that the lower court has the discretion to change Concepcion’s sentence, should they choose to do so. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, stated:

The text of the First Step Act does not so much as hint that district courts are prohibited from considering evidence of rehabilitation, disciplinary infractions, or unrelated Guidelines changes. The only two limitations on district courts’ discretion appear in §404(c): A district court may not consider a First Step Act motion if the movant’s sentence was already reduced under the Fair Sentencing Act or if the court considered and rejected a motion under the First Step Act. Neither of those limitations applies here.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh disagreed, stating in his dissent that:

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. In other words, the First Step Act directs district courts to answer one fundamental question: What would the offender’s sentence have been if the lower crack-cocaine sentencing ranges had been in effect back at the time of the original sentencing?

In its Amicus Brief, the American Civil Libertie Union (ACLU) urged the court to grant deference to judges, saying, “[o]n the government’s account, Congress sub silentio permitted district courts to ignore extant law and facts in re-sentencing defendants pursuant to a statute specifically designed to provide relief from an unduly punitive and discriminatory sentencing regime. That reading of the First Step Act is implausible.”

Kimberly Robinson, a Supreme Court Reporter for Bloomberg Law, pointed out the unique voting lineup given the polarized nature of the court, noting that conservative Justices Thomas and Gorsuch joined with the court’s liberals in the majority opinion.