Supreme Court Narrowly Interprets Landmark Reduced Sentencing Law

The Supreme Court sided with the government on Friday, narrowly interpreting a provision of a landmark criminal justice law in a decision likely to limit the number of federal prisoners who are eligible for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

The decision, by a vote of 6 to 3, did not split along ideological lines. The majority opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, concluded that a criminal defendant must meet a series of criminal history conditions to qualify for relief. A failure to meet any of the criteria, she wrote, would render a prisoner ineligible.

The case focused on who is eligible for shorter prison sentences under the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation passed in 2018 to address the human and financial costs of the country’s booming prison population.

Under a provision known as the “safety valve,” judges can disregard federal mandatory minimum sentences for people with limited criminal history convicted of certain nonviolent drug offenses.

The law lists three types of criminal history among its criteria for eligibility. The justices were asked to decide whether just one type of criminal history disqualifies a person from a lighter sentence, or whether all three must be present for a disqualification.

Like the arguments, which were focused on grammar — basically, what does “and” mean in a list — Justice Kagan’s opinion adopted the tone of an English teacher. The opinion, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, was peppered with examples of sentence structure, pulling from childhood classics.

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