United States – The Supreme Court decreed on Friday that tens of thousands of low-level drug dealers should be given new sentences that could reduce their prison terms for which they are currently serving under the former Trump-era bipartisan legislation known as the criminal justice overhaul.

First Step Act

The justices heard Mark Pulsifer’s case, an Iowa man serving a sentence of distributing more than 50 grams of methamphetamine, as a result of disagreement among federal courts on the meaning of the word “and” in the dismissing clause of the 2018 First Step Act, as reported by The Associated Press.

The valve release provision is included in the law as a last resort measure for those found guilty of dealing low-level and non-violent drug crimes if they are willing to plead and also cooperate with the prosecutors.

Some courts had decided that indeed means “and,” whereas others disagreed with defining this word as “or.” As a result, a defendant’s sentence can be reduced if the court decides that indeed means “and” or not, respectively.

“Today, we agree with the Government’s view of the criminal-history provision,” Justice Kagan Elena wrote for the majority of the 6-3 judgment, who were avoiding splitting the justices between the liberal and conservative ones.

Justice Gorsuch’s Dissent and Implications

Visual Representation – Justice Neil Gorsuch. Credit | Getty images

Disagreeing, Justice Neil Gorsuch indicated that “the most significant criminal-justice reform bill in a generation.” But in the wake of the court’s judgment, “thousands more people in the federal criminal justice system will be denied a chance—just a chance at,” wrote Gorsuch, joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor.

The US Sentencing Commission, which has compiled data, estimates that out of approximately 6,000 people convicted of drug trafficking in the last budget year, were part of the population of those who could have been eligible for shorter sentences.

The subsection of the law has, in fact, three factors to take into account to allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentences to mainly consider the seriousness of previous crimes. The drafter of the section was not very clear, and the judge could use his/her discretion on the sentencing if the defendant did not provide three sorts of criminal history.

Key Provision

Before making the decision, the justices wondered how an individual would be qualified for the safety valve, whether meeting one or two or all is enough to qualify him or her or enough to disqualify him or her.

Pulsifer’s lawyers contended that only in the case of these three factors of engagement would the sentence increase be admissible. While the government may argue with just one condition, the defendant will deserve the mandatory minimum.

Kagan wrote that the language “creates an eligibility checklist and demands that a defendant satisfy every one of its conditions.”

Future Considerations

Two of the three conditions are referred to as Pulsifer’s. The lower court and the court of appeals from the 8th US District of Columbia ruled that he should get the mandatory minimum sentence of at least fifteen years. On the contrary, he was imprisoned for 13 years-and-a-half terms on mostly unrelated charges, as reported by The Associated Press.

According to federal Bureau of Jail data, Pulsifer, who is currently 61, is not expected to be freed from jail until 2031.

If Congress felt the court had made a mistake, it could still amend the legislation.

Pulsifer v. US, 22-340 is the case.