WASHINGTON (CN) — When resentencing individuals for crimes involving crack cocaine, judges are not limited to considering only the circumstances in place at the time of the offense, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The case is one of countless that grew out of the the First Step Act of 2018, through which Congress brought retroactive force to the Fair Sentencing Act. When the latter statute came into force in 2010, reducing the minimum penalties for many federal crimes involving crack cocaine, Carlos Concepcion was only about two years into the 19-year sentence he was given for possessing and intending to distribute a least 5 grams of the drug.
That Concepcion merited some relief under the First Step Act was not disputed, but the government insisted that the court should still consider Concepcion a career offender due to his prior state court convictions. He appealed to the Supreme Court after the First Circuit affirmed a federal judge's ruling that, if the court “considered only the changes in law that the Fair Sentencing Act enacted, [Concepcion’s] sentence would be the same.”
Reversing that decision Monday, however, in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court court held that district court judges have a duty to consider not just how the laws have changed since the original sentencing date but any rehabilitation that a defendant may have undergone during that time as well.
"Federal courts historically have exercised broad discretion to consider all relevant information at an initial sentencing hearing, consistent with their responsibility to sentence the whole person before them," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. "That discretion also carries forward to later proceedings that may modify an original sentence."
This is hardly unique to First Step Act cases, Sotomayor continued, noting that federal courts routinely consider evidence or rehabilitation or of violence and rule-breaking in prison when resentencing individuals whose sentences were vacated on appeal.
"By definition, First Step Act movants have amassed prison records of over a decade," Sotomayor wrote. "Those records are naturally of interest to judges authorized by the First Step Act to reduce prison sentences or even to release movants immediately.
But even while courts should consider these intervening changes, Sotomayor emphasized that the evaluation may not necessarily lead to a sentencing reduction.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined a dissent by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as did Justices Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, who labeled Monday's ruling an "anomalous outcome [that] will amount to a 'haphazard windfall' for crack-cocaine offenders sentenced before August 3, 2010."
"Congress enacted the First Step Act to provide a targeted retroactive reduction in crack-cocaine sentencing ranges, not to unleash a sentencing free-for-all in the lower courts," Kavanaugh wrote.
When the U.S. Senate passed the 100-to-1 rule — meaning an individual would need to own 100 times the amount of powder cocaine to trigger the same minimum sentence for crack — in 1986, it was responding to what former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman would later admit was a war on drugs designed to vilify Black Americans and hippies.
The sentencing disparity largely rested on spurious notions that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine, or that those who use crack are somehow prone to violence, but the science is firm that the two substances are different forms of the same drug.
Incarceration disparities for crack offenses have been especially pronounced in Black communities, even though consumption rates of both crack and powder cocaine are highest among white users. With the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the 100-to-1 ratio was reduced to 18 to 1. Debates over how to eliminate remaining disparities are ongoing in Congress.