By Tiffany Thai
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The United States Sentencing Commission is responsible for addressing the division of interpretation of the law between the lower courts and ensuring the fair and uniform application of these laws.
However, the minimum number of commissioners on the Sentencing Commission does not exist today, according to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett this week.
Action by the commission allows prisoners to get a shortened sentence for good behavior and job training, giving prisoners better prospects once they are released. Additionally, it will enable an offender to seek compassionate release.
The justice released a statement with a denial of writ of certiorari in the case of Thomas Javion Guerrant v. United States. Justice Sotomayor highlighted that the lack of members on the Sentencing Commission is a dire problem and has been for the past three years.
The statement agreed upon by Justices Sotomayor and Barrett is interesting because they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Justice Sotomayor tends to lean liberal, while Justice Barrett leans conservative.
Since there is no consensus, issues such as the interpreted definition of a “controlled substance offense” in the Circuit Courts do not have a uniform interpretation nationally, they said.
The Second and Ninth Circuits have referred to federal law to define a “controlled substance offense,” defining controlled substances as only those listed in the Controlled Substances Act. However, the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits use relevant state laws to define controlled substances.
On Jan. 12, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who is currently Acting Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, issued a statement commenting on the statement by Justices Sotomayor and Barrett.
Justice Breyer agreed with the sentiments from Justices Sotomayor and Barrett, noting:
“I have said many times, it is critical that the White House nominate and the Senate confirm enough commissioners to allow the Commission to resume its important statutory function of updating the guidelines to address new policies, circuit conflicts, and changes in law.
“It is particularly frustrating that the Commission has been unable to implement significant changes made by the First Step Act of 2018, including changes to the procedures by which an offender can seek compassionate release.”
The Sentencing Commission has not been able to make changes to important laws such as the First Step Act of 2018, he said, noting the First Step Act allows prisoners to get a shortened sentence for good behavior and job training, giving prisoners better prospects once they are released. Additionally, it will enable an offender to seek compassionate release.
“At this point, the Sentencing Commission has not had a quorum for three full years. As the instant petition illustrates, the resultant unresolved divisions among the Courts of Appeals can have direct and severe consequences for defendants’ sentences. I hope in the near future the Commission will be able to resume its important function in our criminal justice system,” Breyer added.