Since the 1990s, lawmakers have imposed increasingly tough sentences on drug crimes. One common strategy at both the state and federal levels is to impose mandatory minimum sentences. Instead of giving judges fairly wide latitude to decide how to punish each individual defendant, mandatory minimums set the floor, often requiring jail or prison time based on the type or amount of drug involved. Individual circumstances are typically ignored.
More recently, political leaders have begun to recognize that harsh prison terms are not necessarily the best way to avoid recidivism in low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act. Among other things, this law gave federal judges more case-by-case discretion in imposing sentence and reduced the use of mandatory minimum requirements. It includes a so-called “safety valve provision” for those accused of certain drug crimes to avoid mandatory sentencing if they plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution on other cases.
What a single word can mean
However, the provision’s language has caused a lot of confusion. It says a defendant is eligible if he or she “does not have” three types of criminal history. The question is whether Congress meant a defendant is ineligible only if they have all three things on their prior record, or just one of the three things. As the Associated Press reports, the debate essentially comes down to interpreting the use of the word “and.”
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case in early October and will issue a decision sometime during its current session.
Your drug case is more than a docket number or file in a drawer. How it turns out can affect your freedom, your ability to find a job or go to school, and your reputation in the community. You need the best possible representation to help you.