The word ‘and’ could land criminal defendants with longer sentences thanks to Supreme Court ruling

Court interpretted the “safety valve” provision of the First Step Act to mean defendants need to meet three pieces of criteria to be eligible for shorter sentencing instead of just one

Ariana Baio
Friday 15 March 2024 17:04 GMT
Senate Judiciary Committee begins investigation into Supreme Court ethics

A new Supreme Court ruling will make it more difficult for criminal defendants with prior nonviolent drug offenses to seek shorter sentences under a law whose purpose was to reform federal prisons.

In a 6-3 decision released on Friday, the court ruled that the word “and” means “and”, not “or”, in a complicated case that challenged justices to interpret grammar and the intention of the First Step Act – a criminal justice reform bill passed under the Trump administration.

Under the “safety valve” provision of the First Step Act, criminal defendants could be eligible for shorter sentencing (less than the mandatory 15-year minimum) so long as they did not have: more than four criminal history points, a prior serious offense, and a prior violent offense.

But up for debate was whether defendants had to satisfy just one of those criteria points or all of them to be eligible for lower sentencing – which drastically changes the prison time an individual faces

In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that a defendant must satisfy all of those points to be eligible saying, “Lenity applies only when a statute is genuinely ambiguous.”

“In the Government’s view, “and” connects three criminal-history conditions, all of which must be satisfied to gain safety-valve relief,” Justice Kagan wrote.

Supreme Court ruled on the interpretation of the word “and” in a criminal reform bill
Supreme Court ruled on the interpretation of the word “and” in a criminal reform bill (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The ruling means that individuals seeking reduced sentencing under the “safety valve” provision will have to meet all three criteria laid out in the document in order to qualify. Otherwise, they will automatically receive a mandatory minimum of 15 years – even for nonviolent drug offenses.

Last year, the Department of Justice found that less than 10 per cent of those who were serving five years or less in prison under the First Step Act re-offended. But that number increased by six percentage points for those serving 15 years or more.

Justice Kagan argued that interpreting “and” to mean “or” would contradict the government’s reading of the statute and other parts of the provision. She added that allowing each one of the criteria to be weighed on its own would unevenly punish individuals leaving room for error and further challenges.

Justice Kagan was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the dissenting opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Meanwhile, Justices Neil Gorsuch delivered the dissenting opinion joined by Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, saying that in this decision, “If this difference seems a small one, it is anything but.”

He criticised the court’s interpretation, saying it deviates from Congress’ intention in creating the safety valve provision to reduce sentencing by having a judge interpret the defendant’s circumstances.

“Today, the Court indulges each of these moves. All to what end? To deny some individuals a chance—just a chance—at relief from mandatory minimums and a sentence that fits them and their circumstances. It is a chance Congress promised in the First Step Act, and it is a promise this Court should have honored,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

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