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High court will examine sentencing disparities over crack cocaine

The First Step Act of 2018 targeted overly severe sentencing for drug charges leftover from the zero-tolerance era. The intent was to rid or reduce overly severe penalties that were legislated as mandatory.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court then unanimously ruled in 2021 that low-level crack cocaine offenders were exempt from this new enlightened approach.

Concepcion v. United States

Now, in early 2022, the Supreme Court will hear Concepcion v. United States, a case that will hopefully provide guidance to lower courts that handle sentence reductions spurred by the FSA.

The Concepcion case involves a defendant arrested in 2007 for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine that he intended to sell. Concepcion was arrested by a federal agent in Massachusetts and then sentenced in 2009 to 19 years in prison. The defendant had prior convictions that escalated the sentence because he qualified as a “career offender” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

The case examines the seemingly unfair sentencing guidelines that place 5 grams of crack cocaine on equal ground with 500 grams of cocaine powder. This disproportion is widely decried as racist because whites and upper-class offenders often faced charges for powder, while blacks and the poor typically faced charges for crack.

Although the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 first addressed this disparity by changing the sentencing laws, it did not apply to previous convictions. The First Step Act updated the Fair Sentencing Act, making it retroactive. This change reduced the sentences of 2,000 inmates.

Addressing inconsistent readings of the law

Sometimes new laws can be vague, either by design or oversight. The lower courts have had an inconsistent reading of FSA and related legal precedents. While some only consider the FSA revisions, others consider new legal or factual information when determining if the inmates deserve a new sentence. The justices will use Concepcion v. United States to identify what the lower court must consider when issuing their decisions on the reduced sentence. In this specific case, the high court will also rule whether Concepcion will receive parole.

While this law firm is not involved in the Concepcion case, we strongly believe that many people were unduly punished by the extreme guidelines involving crack cocaine. This firm is dedicated to protecting its clients and vigorously defends them against unfair sentencing guidelines and challenges violations of their civil rights.

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