Concepcion v. United States
What's at Stake
Whether a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments when deciding if it should “impose a reduced sentence” on an individual under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, which was enacted to ameliorate the unjust sentences imposed by overly harsh treatment of crack cocaine offenses under prior law.
Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which drove criminal and racial injustice by imposing harsher penalties on the use and possession of crack. Although crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, for sentencing purposes every gram of crack cocaine was treated as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced that disparity going forward, but did not apply retroactively, and thus did not help thousands of defendants sentenced before the law took effect.
The First Step Act, passed in 2018, made the reforms of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. This case concerns persons resentenced under the First Step Act.
The United States argues that courts may consider only the changes to defendants’ statutory sentencing ranges caused directly by the Fair Sentencing Act, and must pretend that everything else is the same as at the time of the original sentencing. That would preclude a court taking into account a defendants’ good conduct in prison, for example, because it occurred after the original sentencing.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the Due Process Institute and Southern Poverty Law Center, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Petitioner taking the contrary view. We argue that a district court must (or at minimum may) consider intervening legal and factual developments when deciding if it should “impose a reduced sentence” on an individual under the First Step Act of 2018. Not only is considering intervening legal and factual developments most faithful to the statutory text; it also ensures that, consistent with basic sentencing principles, courts retain the ability to make sentencing decisions based on present circumstances, and are not shackled by repudiated legal rules and stale facts. We also argue that the rule of lenity, which requires any ambiguity to be resolved in a defendant’s favor in interpreting criminal laws, supports this conclusion.