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Law to Reduce Crack Cocaine Sentences Leaves Some Imprisoned

  • August 01, 2020

The section of the act that governs resentencing for crack cocaine convictions is just four sentences long. It made retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. Courts have been relatively slow to determine some of the ambiguities of the act, including whether to consider behavior behind bars or other concurrent charges as factors in the decision.

Many public defenders — who handle most of these applications — in the toughest districts declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the judges who oversee their cases.

Parks Small, a federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said an imperfect First Step Act was still better than nothing, calling the bill a “godsend” for many inmates. He added that judges varied as to the importance they placed on the original offense or the inmate’s behavior behind bars.

“You give it to different judges, they’re going to come up with different opinions,” Mr. Small said. “It’s frustrating.”

That discretion — critics would say arbitrariness — came into play in Mr. Maxwell’s case.

Complicating matters, the Eastern District of Kentucky is one of two districts in the country without a public defender’s office, and First Step Act applicants are not guaranteed a lawyer under the law. Mr. Maxwell got a break when Shon Hopwood, a lawyer who had spent years in federal prison for armed robbery, decided to take up his case.

After Judge Reeves rejected his initial request last year, Mr. Maxwell received some good news in January when the Sixth Circuit found that the judge could not construe Mr. Maxwell’s letter as a motion for resentencing. He would be allowed a chance to demonstrate why he deserved to be released early.

Still, despite his pleas that he be reassigned to a new judge by the circuit, Judge Reeves would be the one to reconsider his request.

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