Under federal law, sentencing for drug offenses and many other crimes is determined by formulas listed in the federal sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines are promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in cooperation with Congress. Sometimes, Congress and the Commission determine that the sentences for certain offenses have a tendency to be unduly harsh or unjust against a certain demographic.
When that happens, the Commission can change the guideline formula to reduce the effective sentences. In many cases, justice requires that the new, lower sentences be applied retroactively to people who are already serving their time.
When courts are resentencing defendants, is there any reason why they should treat people differently if their sentence was part of a negotiated plea bargain? After all, these defendants agreed to plead guilty to certain offenses and took other steps to receive lower overall sentences. Should their sentences be eligible for reduction? Does it matter why they received a lower sentence?
Those are questions that will soon be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has agreed to hear two cases in which defendants were sentenced via plea agreement and sought to have their sentences reduced when the guideline sentences were lowered. Both defendants were denied resentencing by the lower courts.
The question arises in light of a 2011 Supreme Court decision in a case called Freeman v. U.S. In that ruling, the court held that defendants with plea bargains may be eligible for sentencing reductions when the guideline sentences are later reduced. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that to qualify, however, the plea-bargained sentence must be expressly tied to the guideline range.
Whether plea bargain sentences can be reduced in this way is a crucial question. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 95 percent of all federal felony cases are resolved by plea agreement. If justice requires reducing overly-harsh sentences but plea-bargaining defendants are not eligible, the vast majority of defendants could be denied justice.
Does it matter if the defendant earned a low sentence by cooperating with the government?
In one of the cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear, two defendants received below-guideline sentences because they provided substantial assistance to federal investigators. When the guidelines were reduced, their previously-low sentences became unusually high. Should they be forced to live with their original bargain — or should they be resentenced to reflect the spirit of the bargain?
In the other case, a defendant was denied resentencing because his sentence was not explicitly based on the federal sentencing guidelines.
As is customary, the Supreme Court didn’t comment on its decision to review the two cases. What do you think should happen?