Resource and Practice Tip: Update on Granted First Step Act Sentence Reductions and Some Thoughts on the Compassionate Release Eligibility Framework

 

By Ashley Cordero

Ashley is a fall intern at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming. She is a second-year law student at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Prior to law school, she managed an employment program for previously incarcerated individuals in her hometown Los Angeles, California. She hopes to remain in Colorado to pursue a career in public defense.

FIRST STEP ACT UPDATE

Summary of the USSC Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report

In October 2019, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released the Retroactivity Data Report collecting data on sentence reductions granted pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act. Section 404 expanded the pool of individuals eligible for a sentence reduction for previous crack-cocaine convictions by retroactively applying sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Now, under the First Step Act, the courts were to consider granting a sentence reduction as if the Fair Sentencing Act was in effect when the defendant was originally sentenced.

Sections 2 and 3 increased the quantity of crack cocaine that triggered mandatory minimum penalties and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine. This retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act guidelines had the potential to ameliorate some of the racial inequity stemming from the disparate crack-cocaine conviction rates between Black (83.0%) and White (5.8%) defendants. The report includes motions granted through September 30, 2019.

Key Findings from the USSC Retroactivity Report

  • Nationwide, district courts have granted 1,987 motions for sentence reduction under section 404. The Tenth Circuit has granted 1.7% (35) of these motions. The Districts of Colorado and Wyoming have granted four sentence reductions within the Tenth Circuit.
  • Of the defendants granted a sentence reduction, 91.2% are Black, 4.2% Hispanic, 3.8% White.
  • 98% of defendants granted a sentence reduction are male.
  • Nationally, on average defendants saw a 26.2% decrease from their current sentence. In the Tenth Circuit, defendants saw an average 30% decrease.

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE ARGUMENTS IN 924(c) CASES

Background

Section 403 of the First Step Act eliminated the archaic stacking provision that previously mandated minimums for individuals who were convicted of possessing a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense –even if the charges arose from a singular criminal incident. The First Step Act revised 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C) by providing that the higher penalty for a “second or subsequent count of conviction” under section 924(c) is triggered only if the defendant has a prior section 924(c) conviction that has become final.  See generally USSC First Step Act Summary. However, Section 403 was not made retroactive. This prompts the question, where do defendants with previous mandatory minimums under 924(c) fall within the First Step Act compassionate release eligibility framework?

Federal courts may reduce a defendant’s sentence if they find an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to warrant a reduction and that reduction is consistent with policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (2018). This is known as “compassionate release.”

The Sentencing Commission Policy statement dated November 1, 2018, lists four eligibility criteria including “other reasons” where there exists an “extraordinary and compelling reason other than or in combination with reasons” described in the report. While the report has not been updated since the passage of the First Step Act, district courts continue to refer to the policy statement as helpful guidance.  United States v Bucci, 2019 WL 5075964, at *1 (D. Mass. Sept. 16, 2019); See also United States v Shields, 2019 WL 2645028, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 27, 2019).

While a sentence reduction must be consistent with the Commission’s policy statements, federal courts are not bound to these prescriptive categories. Courts have not found the policy report circumstances list to be exhaustive. See United States v Overcash, 2019 WL 1472104 (April 3, 2019) (stating the court may make an independent determination). Even if eligibility is established, reduction is not required. Federal courts have the discretion to reduce the defendant’s sentence, considering the 3553(a) sentencing factors to make their determination. See United States v Cole, 2019 WL 3406872, *5 (N.D. Ind. July 29, 2019).

If Making Compassionate Release Argument, Consider Reading Shon Hopwood’s article, Second Looks and Second Chances

  • Shon Hopwood is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown Law. In June 2019, as part of a series on federal sentencing, Cardozo Law Review published his essay, “Second Looks and Second Chances,” which outlines the history of second looks provisions and suggests litigation tactics for certain defendants, such as those with previous 924(c) convictions.
  • Before the First Step Act, Congress did not define what constituted an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for sentence reduction. Congress intended this provision to act as a safety valve.
  • There is no indication that Congress intended to limit the compassionate release safety valve to only medical or elderly release. If a defendant can establish extraordinary and compelling circumstances, compassionate release could be used to justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence.
  • By eliminating the stacking provision, Congress has acknowledged that the original sentencing scheme for 924(c) was overly punitive and unfair.
  • Unlike section 404 which established categorical eligibility, section 403 was not retroactive. Those sentenced under the stacking provision and now seeking relief under compassionate release must establish “extraordinary and compelling reasons” individually.
  • However, simply because Congress did not create a retroactive categorical eligibility for sentence reduction does not suggest that Congress foreclosed other options of relief.
  • Consider using the “other reasons” provision to demonstrate that the defendant has a compelling and extraordinary reason for compassionate release.

 

 

 

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming