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Sixth Circuit: Courts May Consider Good Prison Conduct in Sentence Reduction Under First Step Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on April 14, 2020, that a sentencing court may consider a prisoner’s good conduct in fashioning a lower sentence in light of the First Step Act.

The ruling came after John Allen filed under the First Step Act to reduce his federal drug sentence imposed in 2007, but the district court denied his request. While the court praised Allen for his “commendable” prison conduct, it stopped short of considering such conduct to reduce his sentence.

“The court’s authority to reduce defendant’s sentence is strictly limited to statutory authority,” District Judge Christopher Boyko of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio said. He reasoned that “the First Step Act in this instance limits the court’s review to the time defendant committed the covered offense. Thus, any good behavior that occurred after the covered offense is immaterial.”

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit rejected this interpretation. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), a court may modify a sentence where such modification “is expressly permitted by statute,” the Court noted. While §§ 3582(c)(1)(A) and (c)(2) have “constraints” on what a court may consider in modifying a sentence after it’s been imposed, the Court concluded that § 3582(c)(1)(B) depends on the statute authorizing the reduction, as there are no limitations per se under § 3582(c)(1)(B).

Does the First Step Act then authorize a sentencing court to consider post-sentencing conduct in reducing a sentence? The Sixth Circuit identified four reasons in concluding that it does. First, and most important, “the First Step Act does not prohibit courts from considering the factors outlined in § 3553(a),” the Court said. The factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) require a sentencing court to consider several factors in crafting a sentence, which includes information about the person’s history and conduct. “Section 404’s silence regarding the standard the courts should use in determining whether to reduce a defendant’s sentence cannot be read to limit the information that courts may consider,” the Court said.

Second, the Court reasoned that “it would be inappropriate to impute the substantive standards contained in §§ 3582(c)(1)(A) and (c)(2) to § 3582(a)(1)(B) or to draw a negative inference from the fact that §§ 3582(c)(1)(B) does not contain any substantive standard.” In other words, just because § 3582(c)(1)(B) doesn’t say that courts can use the § 3553(a) factors, does not mean a court cannot do so.

Third, the Court considered some policy concerns addressed by the First Step Act. “The judges considering First Step Act motions will frequently not be the original sentencing judges because of the length of sentences in crack-cocaine and cocaine-base cases,” the Court explained. And the First Step Act expressly says a court may reduce a sentence as though the Fair Sentencing Act “were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” “Thus, prohibiting courts from assessing the § 3553(a) factors would require the courts to exercise their discretion based on a record that was not created with the current statutory framework in mind.”

Fourth, the Court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476 (2011), which held that courts may consider post-sentencing conduct under the § 3553(a) factors when resentencing. While Pepper dealt mainly with plenary resentencing, the Sixth Circuit said that “such a distinction does not logically prevent courts from considering post-sentencing conduct in assessing the § 3553(a) factors during a § 3582(c)(1)(B) sentence-modification proceeding.”

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Related legal case

United States v. Allen



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