On First Day of New Term, Supreme Court Hears Debate Over First Step Act

On First Day of New Term, Supreme Court Hears Debate Over First Step Act

In its first argument of the new term, the Supreme Court heard a case on Monday that explored a provision of a law aimed at reducing prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes.

The case focused on part of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation passed in 2018 aimed at rolling back tough sentencing laws that had caused the country’s prison population to balloon.

Under what is known as the “safety valve” provision, judges could disregard mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of certain nonviolent drug offenses who had limited criminal history.

At issue is how to interpret a part of the law that determines who is eligible for this provision, which could potentially lead to a shorter sentence. Three requirements under the provision involve prior criminal history, and the court is being asked to decide whether people no longer qualify if they meet one of these criteria — or if they must meet all three.

The court’s ruling will affect thousands of people in federal prison and their families who hope to benefit from the law aimed at reducing both the human and the financial costs of incarceration.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first justice in the modern court to have worked as a public defender, zeroed in on the practical consequences of the law during an argument that hinged on grammatical interpretation.

“It’s a criminal statute with huge implications for the lives and well-being of the people who come through the system,” said Justice Jackson, who also worked for the United States Sentencing Commission, which studies and develops sentencing policies for the federal courts.

A report by the sentencing commission published in 2017, before the First Step Act passed, found that drug offenses were the most common types of crimes to include mandatory minimum sentences. Nearly half of all federal inmates were convicted of drug offenses, according to the report.

The case was a muted start for the court’s new term, although the justices have been under intense scrutiny over their ethics after revelations that some of their colleagues had failed to disclose luxury travel and gifts.

The case on Monday, Pulsifer v. United States, No. 22-340, involves a man, Mark E. Pulsifer, who was accused of twice selling methamphetamine to a confidential informant in southwest Iowa.

A federal grand jury indicted him in 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Mr. Pulsifer later pleaded guilty to a single count of distributing at least 50 grams of methamphetamine. He had a prior drug conviction from 2013 in Iowa for possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute.

You can read the full article at the New York Times.