This Report summarizes opinions issued on June 27, 29, and 30, 2022 (Part I).
Opinion: Concepcion v. United States, 20-1650
Concepcion v. United States, 20-1650. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the First Step Act of 2018 allows district courts to consider intervening changes of law or fact when exercising discretion to reduce a sentence. In 2007, Carlos Concepcion pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine and was sentenced under a scheme that created a 100-to-1 disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenders. In 2009, Concepcion was sentenced to 228 months in prison. One year later, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. The Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered the Sentencing Guidelines range for crack-cocaine offenses, but as a “career offender” Concepcion was not eligible for retroactive relief. In 2018, Congress enacted the First Step Act, which allows the district court to impose a reduced sentence as if the Fair Sentencing Act penalties were in effect when an offense was committed. Concepcion filed a motion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act. The Government conceded his eligibility for relief but argued that a reduction was inappropriate because (1) Concepcion’s original sentence fell within the reduced Guidelines range of 188 to 235 months, and (2) although Concepcion had participated in some rehabilitative programs in prison, he had also engaged in troubling behaviors such as fighting. Concepcion responded that, although a 2016 reduction in the Sentencing Guidelines did not apply retroactively, the court could consider that he would no longer be considered a career offender under the amended Guidelines, and his sentencing range would be 57 to 71 months. The district court declined to consider the 2016 change, believing that the First Step Act required the court to place itself at the time of the original sentencing in 2009, with no changes other than those mandated by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The First Circuit affirmed. In a decision by Justice Sotomayor, the Court reversed.
The Court explained that sentencing courts generally may consider a wide variety of relevant information about the crime and the defendant as an individual. When a defendant is resentenced, the court may consider evidence of his conduct since his initial sentencing, whether that evidence shows rehabilitation or misconduct. Courts also have discretion to consider unrelated Guidelines changes when resentencing a defendant. “In many cases, a district court is prohibited from recalculating a Guidelines range in light of nonretroactive Guidelines amendments, but the court may find those amendments to be germane when deciding whether to modify a sentence at all, and if so, to what extent.” The only limitations on a court’s discretion to consider relevant information are those set forth by Congress or the Constitution, and Congress “is not shy about placing such limits where it deems them appropriate.”
The Court found that nothing in the First Step Act expressly or implicitly overcomes the established tradition of sentencing discretion. “Had Congress intended to constrain district courts to consider only the record as it existed at the time of the original sentencing, Congress would have written the ‘as if’ clause to refer to that sentencing, not the commission of the offense. Thus, the language Congress enacted in the First Step Act specifically requires district courts to apply the legal changes in the Fair Sentencing Act when calculating the Guidelines if they chose to modify a sentence.” Here, although the district court was not required to accept Concepcion’s arguments, it should have considered “intervening changes of law or fact”―including the 2016 change to the Sentencing Guidelines―when exercising its discretion regarding whether to reduce his sentence.
Justice Kavanaugh dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Barrett. In their view, the First Step Act authorized courts to reduce sentences as if the 2010 law were in effect when the offense was committed, but the Act did not allow courts to consider “other unrelated legal or factual changes that have occurred since the original sentencing.” The dissent considered the non-retroactive 2016 Sentencing Guidelines amendment to be such an unrelated change. “The Court sidesteps the text of the Act” and ignores “fundamental differences between sentencing and sentence-modification proceedings.” Once a sentence is final, it may be modified only in limited circumstances, and Congress has provided that courts may only reduce a term of imprisonment as “expressly permitted by statute.” Justice Kavanaugh opined that the First Step Act permits reduction only in light of the lower sentencing ranges for crack-cocaine offenses, not other intervening changes. He predicted that the Court’s decision will lead to further sentencing inequities between those sentenced before the 2010 Act (who may now obtain the benefit of the non-retroactive 2016 Guidelines change) and those who were sentenced between 2010 and 2016 (to whom neither the First Step Act nor the 2016 Guidelines change apply).