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Justices Divided Over Longer Sentences for Defunct Drug Charges

The Supreme Court appeared divided on Monday when weighing how to apply sentencing guidelines to criminal defendants who commit serious drug offenses with decriminalized substances, Courthouse News reports. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, felons who possess firearms are subject to a maximum 10-year sentence. However, the sentencing maximum rises to 15 years if the person has three prior violent felonies or serious drug offenses. The case before the court asked the justices to balance the qualifications for the three felonies against the fluidity of how substances are criminalized and the discrepancies between state and federal regulations. The Armed Career Criminal Act uses the Controlled Substances Act to define controlled substances and Congress instructed the attorney general to control this list, adding, removing, or rescheduling substances as appropriate. Sentences altered based on the justices’ ruling and the decision will determine whether current, past, and future criminal defendants facing firearm charges will be subject to more prison time.

Congregating under the government’s view, the majority of the court’s conservatives seemed to think the offenses should be evaluated based on the time of the prior state drug conviction. This means that even if the government later decriminalized a substance, criminal defendants would still receive a mark against them should they be charged with possessing a weapon and face sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said this conclusion followed Congress’ intention in enacting the law. The government said Congress intended for courts to conduct a backward-looking inquiry to assess any prior convictions when they occurred. Justice Clarence Thomas questioned how an amendment to the statute would differ from the government altering the Controlled Substances Act. The government said it was cross-referencing the Controlled Substances Act, which is a dynamic body of law, and the question was which version Congress wanted to reference. Justice Sonia Sotomayor saw this as cherry-picking because the government only wanted to look at the act at the time of the drug offenses. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson took a broader approach, thinking the guidelines should coincide with the gun possession sentencing based on the idea of identifying the most serious offenders.


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