Since the First Step Act of 2018 became law, thousands of federal inmates have been released early from prison through the “Compassionate Release Program.” The First Step Act allows inmates to request early release or a sentence reduction if they present “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Most of the inmates released since the First Step Act was passed were released during the COVID-19 pandemic based their medical conditions and vulnerability to the coronavirus.
More recently, however, courts have been granting early releases and sentence reductions to inmates who received excessively long sentences under mandatory-minimum laws that have since been reduced. Many inmates have been able to persuade judges to reduce their sentences by showing that they would have been sentenced to much less time if they had been sentenced under today’s laws.
Courts have a lot of discretion in determining whether an inmate has presented “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting their release or a sentence reduction. Therefore, while marijuana is still illegal under federal law, inmates who are serving long sentences for marijuana offenses should consider filing a motion for compassionate release or a sentence reduction based on major changes in how our society and legal system view marijuana, especially if they were convicted in states where marijuana is now legal under state law.
At least one court has released an inmate serving time for a marijuana offense based on changes to marijuana laws. In United States v. Orozco, the district court released an inmate who was serving a long mandatory-minimum sentence for marijuana and firearm offenses. The court noted, “Since Defendant was prosecuted over ten years ago, society’s attitude towards marijuana has drastically changed.”
More recently, attorneys filing a motion for release for an inmate serving 22 years for selling marijuana in California, where marijuana is now legal, cited Justice Clarence Thomas’s words in a recent Supreme Court case to prove their point. In that case, Justice Thomas criticized the “half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana” and argued that laws criminalizing growing or using marijuana “may no longer be necessary or proper” based on these inconsistencies.
Inmates serving time in federal prison for marijuana offenses now have some very powerful arguments to make in seeking an early release or sentence reduction, and they even have the statistics to prove it. Recent statistics released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission show that there has been a steady drop in marijuana prosecutions at the federal level since 2016. The current Attorney General has also stated that the Department of Justice will not prioritize marijuana offenses, and defendants in marijuana cases are receiving much lower sentences than before. Using these statistics, an inmate can show a judge that they would have likely been served to much less time had they been sentenced today.
If you have a loved one who is serving time in federal prison for a marijuana offense, contact our firm to speak to one of our experienced compassionate release attorneys. Our experienced attorneys have helped several federal inmates obtain early release, including several based on their excessive sentences, and we look forward to fighting for you and your family next.
Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of our firm’s “The Federal Docket” and a contributor to Mercer Law Review’s Annual Survey in the areas of federal law. Tom was named a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer by The National Trial Lawyers, and is a recognized expert in federal sentencing law. He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.