Even when Congress thinks they are doing something right, the U.S. Supreme Court can rule otherwise. In the early stages of the Trump Administration, President Trump put an emphasis on convictions of individuals who were charged and over-prosecuted with extended sentences in the for-profit prison system. Focus was especially centered on those convicted on cocaine charges and given maximum prison incarceration terms in Pennsylvania and other states. Congress took the lead and wrote legislation addressing the request of the White House. However, the message was apparently not well understood.
Ineffective legislative language
Judges in the nation’s highest court have a difficult time deciding if they are literalists or interpreters when they assess the law, and this case was no different than many others. Evaluating by the letter of the law, they decided that those who were convicted of cocaine trafficking for major amounts were covered by the sentence reducing legislation. However, this did not apply to defendants who were convicted on minor possession charges long ago when Congress was writing massive legislation for those charged with drug crimes.
The recommendation from the high court
According to the Supreme Court, the legislative language allows only for reduced sentences for the major traffickers. The primary statements associated with the ruling were by Justice Sotomayor, who generally said that Congress did an insufficient job of writing what was titled the First Step Act. She suggested that Congress should revisit the law and add the necessary language that would include reduced sentences for those with extensive incarceration following convictions in minor possession drug crimes.
This ruling came as a shock to people who thought the Supreme Court would interpret the law to allow reductions for minor offenders with extensive jail terms. However, the high court side-stepped the issue altogether and issued a benign ruling that defeats the intended purpose of the legislation as first proposed. Individuals seeking a reduction in sentencing may need to rely on their criminal defense attorney rather than forthcoming legislation.