Supreme Court’s Ruling on Usage of “and” Could Impact Prison Sentences

( – When it returns to work in October, a legal argument about the definition of the word “and” will be heard in the US Supreme Court. Courts across the country cannot agree whether “and” means “and” or “or” in new criminal justice legislation, and the Supreme Court has been called upon to settle the matter.

The First Step Act, legislation partly intended to increase judicial discretion on sentencing, contains a safety valve provision that allows low-level and non-violent drug offenders to avoid previously mandatory hefty jail terms. There are three criteria in the legislation which, if met, permit the judge to spare the defendant a mandatory sentence and apply a shorter one in its place. The question is whether a defendant must meet all three criteria to qualify for a shorter sentence or if just one is sufficient.

The rule is based upon a defendant’s prior criminal history, if any, and it has reached the courts thanks to a challenge by attorneys representing Mark Pulsifer, who has been convicted of distributing methamphetamine. His lawyers argue he does not qualify for the 15-year minimum sentence because he meets only two of the three requirements of the legislation.

The Justice Department disagrees and says any defendant who meets any of the requirements should be subject to the mandatory penalty.

The question will be the first posed to the Supreme Court in its new session on October 2, and its decision will impact the prison sentences of many people. Douglas Berman, an expert on sentencing at Ohio State University Law School, believes the ruling will impact more than 10,000 convicts.

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in 2018, intending to reform sentencing laws to reduce recidivism and decrease the inmate population. In its first year, 3,000 prisoners were released, and a further 2,000 had their sentences reduced. Almost 350 prisoners of advanced age were moved to home confinement, and 200 were released on compassionate grounds.

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