Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Finally, clarity on the FSA, or wait, no

In the Sixth Circuit, does the Fair Sentencing Act apply retroactively to reduce sentences of individuals who received mandatory minimum sentences before the FSA was passed? You could be forgiven for not knowing the answer to that question. Indeed, as time has worn on, the answer has changed from "Maybe" to "Duh" to "Maybe" to "Probably No" to "No" to "Maybe" to "Yes?" to "Yes!" and all the way back to "Probably No." Thanks to yesterday's published Doe case, the answer is now "Hawuhh?" followed by a qualified "Maybe."

Doe recognizes a fact that is delightfully obvious: Congress could not possibly have wanted to create a system so blatantly inequitable as to continue incarcerating people under mandatory minimums that it deemed "unfair" and, er "racist," while retroactively lowering a whole bunch of other sentences for exactly the same reason. "But wait a minute," you wonder aloud, fictitiously, "Didn't Blewett already address this, and wasn't Blewett taken up en banc?" It's funny you should ask that to your computer screen just now, because Doe bends over backwards to avoid addressing that! Well, Judge Keith's majority opinion does. And it does this by suggesting that its logic only applies to cases where the defendant receives a substantial assistance departure. Its too-complicated-to-summarize-here logic, however, relies on the fact that all sentences --- including statutory mandatory minimums --- are "based on the guidelines" because the guidelines incorporate statutory minimums into their calculations. For this reason, Judge Cole's concurrence recognizes that this logic would apply to all mandatory minimum sentences, not just those involving substantial assistance. Judge Cole also recognizes that the deeper, more "profoundly difficult and divisive" question regarding all mandatory minimum sentences will be addressed en banc.

Only Judge Rogers in his dissent is so brave as to utter the shibboleth: Blewett. Judge Rogers recognizes that this case has the same effect as Blewett but for different reasons. He also "regrets" that he must dissent, suggesting that perhaps the Doe logic could resolve the Blewett problem, or maybe Doe and Blewett could join their powers to form a sort of FSA Voltron and vanquish all foes.

And what of the Joiner opinion, published on the very same day? Doesn't it say exactly the opposite thing that Doe is saying? Well, yes, it certainly seems to. Life's just funny that way, I suppose, as are the Constitution, the sentencing guidelines, and Congressional lawmaking.

So what is a defender --- or a person sentenced to a 20-year mandatory-minimum who is languishing in prison largely because her race dictated the punishment she received for a crime similar to many other, lesser-punished crimes --- to do? Wait, advocate, and hope. The wheels of justice are grinding slowly, as they always do, but they seem to be pointed in more or less the right direction.


Laura Davis, AFPD, FDSET said...

Whiplash combined with brain cramp left me huddled under my desk muttering, "let me know when it sorts out. I'll come out when we have an answer..."

Bradley R. Hall, E.D. Mich. said...
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