Concepcion vs. United States, the First Step Act, and Judicial Discretion in Sentence Reductions


An issue that impacts clients more than they realize is the discretion afforded judges when resentencing defendants under the First Step Act. The recent Supreme Court decision in Concepcion vs. United States addresses this question, and the result arguably bodes well for defendants seeking to utilize tools like compassionate release to reduce their sentences. Here, we will provide a brief primer on the Court’s decision on judicial discretion and sentence reductions under the First Step Act.


Breaking Down the Case: Concepcion vs. United States

In 2009, the defendant, Mr. Concepcion, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for selling more than 13 grams of crack cocaine. He was a career offender, meaning he had a number of prior convictions for violent crimes connected with drug distribution. 

Sentencing for crack-related crimes changed in 2010, one year after Mr. Concepcion was originally sentenced. The Fair Sentencing Act increased the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger a five- to 40-year sentencing range from five grams to 28 grams. The Act didn’t apply retroactively, but in 2011, the Sentencing Commission amended the Sentencing Guidelines to lower the range for crack-related offenses and applied it retroactively for some defendants.

Mr. Concepcion’s guideline sentencing range was not affected by the quantity reductions, and he was not eligible for resentencing when the crack sentencing changes took effect in 2010. But he was eligible under the 2018 First Step Act. The Act specifically allows district courts to reduce prison sentences of defendants convicted of certain offenses involving cocaine use. Specifically, it allows a court to reduce a sentence as if the revised penalties for cocaine enacted in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offense was committed.

At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Concepcion made several arguments to this effect, claiming he was entitled to a reduced sentence. Specifically, he argued that one of the convictions that qualified him as a career criminal had been vacated based on a line of SCOTUS cases substantially reducing the number of offenses qualifying as “crime of violence” offenses. So, he argued, at the time of resentencing, he was not a career offender. And although his guideline score could not be retroactively changed to reflect this fact, he argued that the judge could at sentencing consider it in determining the appropriate sentence. The district court judge disagreed, ruling that he could only consider the change in the guideline score that the lower crack cocaine guidelines allowed, and that was because Mr. Concepcion’s original sentence was within the range of his revised guideline score. The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 


SCOTUS: Judges Have Broad Discretion under the First Step Act

On appeal, SCOTUS overruled the First Circuit’s decision, holding that the First Step Act “allows district courts to consider intervening changes of law or fact in exercising their discretion to reduce a sentence.” The Court further noted that it’s only when Congress or the Constitution limits the scope of information allowed in a district court’s decision that judges cannot consider other facts or law. The First Step Act does not contain any such limitations. In fact, the Act requires district courts to consider intervening changes in the law or new facts when parties raise them. Note, however, that the parties must raise them: courts will not consider these changes sua sponte (on their own).

Further, the majority opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, recognized that there is a long tradition in our jurisprudence that affords sentencing judges broad discretion in the type of information they can consider at sentencing. This applies also to sentencing modification hearings. In the opinion, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “There is a longstanding tradition in American law…that a judge at sentencing considers the whole person before him or her ‘as an individual.’” She went on to say that in line with this tradition, courts generally employ broad discretion in evaluating evidence to craft their sentences and that the First Step Act was passed in consideration of this long tradition and broader context. 

Mr. Concepcion’s case was sent back to the district court for consideration according to the Court’s holding.

There has not yet been much analysis since the case is still new; however, what we do now know is that the decision to reduce a sentence falls squarely within the judge’s discretion when new facts or law arise. 


Representing Clients’ Interests in Seeking Sentence Reductions

Federal criminal defense lawyer Elizabeth Franklin-Best helps individuals file motions in federal district court to reduce sentences through tools like compassionate release petitions. For more information about our practice or whether you might qualify for a sentence reduction, you may contact us at (803) 445-1333 or send us an email.