The First Step Act (FSA) of 2018 was one of the few bipartisan bills passed during the Trump presidency. The goal was to reduce draconian or overly severe sentencing guidelines for drug charges leftover from the zero-tolerance era. Then the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that one of the FSA changes did not apply to low-level crack-cocaine offenders.
Concepcion v. United States
The case of Carlos Concepcion involves a defendant getting arrested in 2007 for 5 grams of crack that he intended to distribute. A federal agent in Massachusetts arrested Concepcion. He was then sentenced in 2009 to 19 years in prison. To be fair, the defendant had other prior convictions that made that charge fall under a “career offender” category in Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
In early 2022, the high court will hear this case to guide lower courts on handling sentence reductions authorized under FSA. Concepcion v. United States examines how sentencing of how crack-cocaine was much more severe than regular cocaine – 5 grams of crack was equal to 500 grams of powder. This disparity is widely regarded as racist because crack was more prevalent among Blacks and the poor, while whites and the upper classes typically used the powder.
Congress rectified this disparity in 2010 by enacting the Fair Sentencing Act, but this reform did not apply to crimes committed before the law passed. The FSA allowed the Fair Sentencing Act to be retroactive, which allowed more than 2,000 inmates to have their sentences reduced.
As happens with legal grey areas, lower courts are divided over how to address the FSA and other new legal precedents. Some look only to FSA revisions, while others take recent legal or factual information into account to determine if new sentencing is warranted. In an effort to clean up this inconsistency, the justices will determine what factors the lower courts must weigh when issuing decisions.
The case will also determine if Concepcion is eligible for parole. We’ll revisit this as the details unfold because it may impact the sentencing of those currently in prison on drug charges.