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Supreme Court Grants Judges Discretion In Crack Cocaine Cases

The Supreme Court of the United States has been under major fire lately. For one, the Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, which took away women’s right to abortions in the nation. The SCOTUS also made even more people’s shit list when it restricted the EPA’s authority to mandate carbon emissions reductions, which has significant implications on climate change. However, the Court made one ruling in June that flew under the radar and could be seen as a good thing. Justices ruled on the case of Concepcion v. the United States and decided to grant judges discretion in handling crack cocaine cases.

The decision was based on two acts: the 2018 First Step Act and the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The latter reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses and eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. Among other reforms, the former “made the provisions of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive so that currently incarcerated offenders who received longer sentences for possession of crack cocaine than they would have received if sentenced for possession of the same amount of powder cocaine before the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act.”

“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,” wrote  Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the majority. “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.”

Jurist described the case at hand:

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.

According to Cornell Law School, “Judicial discretion refers to a judge’s power to make a decision based on their individualized evaluation, guided by the principles of law. Judicial discretion gives courts immense power which is exercised when legislature allows for it.” Simply put, judges will have more authority to impose or not impose penalties as they see fit. 

Many feel that the SCOTUS’s decision to grant judicial discretion in crack cocaine cases will lead to more leniency in sentencing. “Mandatory minimums were bullshit from the beginning,” commented attorney Lawrence Blackmon. “They’re a creation of the legislative branch of federal and state government that have unfairly and disproportionately people and communities of color.”

Others are hopeful but still waiting to see how things turn out. Howard University professor of applied theology and national director of prison rehabilitation organization Healing Communities Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear stated, “The spirit of the First Step Act was just and proportionate sentencing and family rehabilitation. Increased judiciary discretion then requires just and proportionate accountability of judges themselves.”

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