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Justices: Low-Level Drug Dealers Ineligible For Shorter Prison Time

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that thousands of low-level drug dealers are ineligible for shortened prison terms under a Trump-era criminal justice law, reports the Associated Press. .The ruling came in the case of Mark Pulsifer, who was convicted of distributing at least 50 grams of methamphetamine, to settle a dispute among federal courts over the meaning of the word “and” in a muddy provision of the 2018 First Step Act. The law’s so-called safety valve provision is meant to spare low-level, nonviolent drug dealers who agree to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors from having to face often longer mandatory sentences.


Some courts had concluded the use of the word indeed means “and,” but others decided that it means “or.” A defendant’s eligibility for a shorter sentence depended on the outcome. “Today, we agree with the Government’s view of the criminal-history provision,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority in the 6-3 decision. In dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch referred to the First Step Act as possibly “the most significant criminal-justice reform bill in a generation.” Under the court’s decision, “thousands more people in the federal criminal justice system will be denied a chance—just a chance at” a reduced sentence, Gorsuch wrote, joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor. Nearly 6,000 people convicted of drug trafficking in the 2021 budget year alone are in the pool of those who might have been eligible for reduced sentences, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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