Seventh Circuit Denies First Step Act Relief to Two Prisoners

Seventh Circuit Denies First Step Act Relief to Two Prisoners

The First Step Act of 2018 authorizes the reduction of sentences for crack-cocaine offenses. For decades, federal law treated crack-cocaine offenses different from power-cocaine offenses for purposes of sentencing — a disparity with racist roots that dates back to the War on Drugs of the 1980s. While President Joe Biden supports closing that disparity, progress in doing so has been slow.

In 2010, former President Barack Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. This law limited, but still left in place, the disparity going forward. And the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act’s provisions in this regard retroactive. But not everyone has been able to capitalize on the First Step Act’s retroactivity provision.

In an opinion issued on Sept. 14, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit became one of those courts, declining to grant two prisoners relief under the First Step Act for their crack-cocaine convictions.

The Seventh Circuit denied First Step Act relief to two men convicted of crack-cocaine offenses.

William Hible and Mabhew Turner both sought relief under the First Step Act for crack-cocaine offenses. Hible pleaded guilty to distributing more than five grams of crack cocaine. A federal district court sentenced him to 240 months in prison. And it subsequently reduced his sentence to 225 months under the First Step Act. But Hible sough to reduce it further. The Seventh Circuit denied Hible relief under the First Step Act. It concluded that the district court’s reliance on a prior conviction did not implicate any of the First Step Act’s retroactive changes.

Turner faced a sentence of life in prison for conspiring to distribute both crack and powder cocaine. Although President Obama commuted his life sentence to 30 years, Turner sought additional relief under the First Step Act. But, even with the First Step Act and Fair Sentencing Act, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the life-in-prison sentence was justified under the statute. “Even if all of the crack Turner distributed were to be disregarded,” the Seventh Circuit said, “the powder alone would require a life sentence.”

The Seventh Circuit’s decision won’t impact many cases, but it does give prisoners more time to appeal First Step Act decisions.

Ultimately, Hible’s and Turner’s arguments presented circumstance-specific legal questions. The Seventh Circuit’s application of the First Step Act in this case likely won’t have a huge impact on other cases. But one other question addressed by the Seventh Circuit might.

Both prisoners filed a motion for reconsideration with the district court before they appealed. Then, after the district court denied that motion, they appealed to the Seventh Circuit. The government argued that such an appeal was untimely because it was filed too late. But the Seventh Circuit held that the time to appeal runs from the reconsideration decision, not the original sentencing decision. This rule of law is narrow, but it gives prisoners more flexibility when seeking relief under the First Step Act.

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