What Can Federal Courts Do About Extreme, Outdated Sentences?

What Can Federal Courts Do About Extreme, Outdated Sentences?

It’s well-known that federal mandatory minimums result in disproportionate and inflexible prison sentences. These penalties are especially notorious in drug cases, where they’ve contributed significantly to racial disparities in prison. What may be surprising, though, is that many of these sentences continue even after the underlying laws are repealed.

When Congress changes the penalty for a given crime, it doesn’t automatically benefit people already serving time in prison for that offense. Congress must specifically make the change retroactive — which some lawmakers hesitate to do. The result is that hundreds, maybe even thousands of people are in federal prison today serving severe sentences that Congress no longer believes are fair or effective.

A 2022 Supreme Court decision — Concepcion v. United States — raised hope for expanded relief for those still in prison under now-repudiated federal penalties. Instead, there remains a deep disagreement among federal courts over how, if at all, to weigh nonretroactive changes to federal penalties when revisiting a prison sentence. The full contours of the decision’s impact will become clearer with time, but ultimately, correcting unjust and now disavowed sentencing laws will likely require a more comprehensive approach.

In 2009, Carlos Concepcion was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison under a harsh law, no longer in effect, for people convicted of crack cocaine distribution. That law — the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — required that such offenses would be punished as severely as those involving 100 times as much powder cocaine. This penalty structure ultimately drove deep racial disparities in prison and catalyzed a campaign for reform. Then, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced this controversial and unjustified weight ratio to 18-to-1 on a forward-looking basis. Eight years later, Congress passed the First Step Act, which (among other things) finally allowed people sentenced for crack cocaine distribution before the Fair Sentencing Act to apply for a shorter prison term under the 18-to-1 rubric.

In 2019, Concepcion petitioned for a sentence reduction under the relevant part of the First Step Act, Section 404. In opposing his request, the government argued to the federal district court that the original sentence still fell within the upper limits of the new allowable sentencing range. But Concepcion also argued that he no longer qualified as a “career offender,” a status that had greatly increased his initial sentence. One of his prior state-level convictions had been vacated, and subsequent nonretroactive changes in federal sentencing law meant his other convictions would no longer trigger the career offender “enhancement.” Without this designation, Concepcion argued to the district judge, his sentence should be significantly lower: somewhere around five to six years.

You can read the full article at The Atlantic.