The Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could potentially reduce sentences for thousands of individuals convicted on drug offenses. The case revolves around the interpretation of the word “and” in a provision of the First Step Act, a bipartisan law passed in 2018 aimed at reforming criminal justice rules and reducing federal sentences.
The provision in question, known as the “safety valve,” allows certain nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimum sentences if they meet specific criteria related to their criminal history. The dispute centers on whether the word “and” in the provision requires offenders to satisfy all three criminal history rules or if they can avoid a harsher sentence as long as they don’t meet all three requirements.
Mark Pulsifer, who was convicted for distributing methamphetamine, brought the case. His lawyers argue that he should not be subject to the 15-year mandatory minimum because he only satisfies two of the requirements and does not have a prior two-point violent offense.
The Justice Department contends that having any of the prior offenses should result in offenders facing the mandatory minimum sentence. Lower courts have been divided on how to interpret the law, leading to inconsistent sentencing outcomes.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Pulsifer, it could potentially impact more than 10,000 people who have been sentenced since the First Step Act took effect. The court will hear oral arguments in the case on October 2, 2023, and a ruling is expected before the end of the court’s term in June 2024.
The First Step Act, signed into law by former President Donald Trump, aims to reform criminal justice rules, reduce federal sentences, and improve conditions in federal prisons. It has been estimated that approximately 2,000 people each year will receive prison sentences that are 20% shorter due to the law’s provisions on mandatory minimums.
Pulsifer’s case highlights the ongoing debate over the interpretation and application of criminal justice reform laws, and the Supreme Court’s ruling will have significant implications for the future of sentencing in drug-related offenses.