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 Federal District Court Judge uses compassionate release as a second look resentencing provision 

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Michael Santos

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I recently posted about my new law review article called Second Looks & Second Chances, and the argument that federal district court judges may use the compassionate release, as amended by the First Step Act, to give second looks in individual cases and then reduce the sentences in those cases. Last week, a federal district court in the Southern District of Texas used compassionate release for just this purpose.

District Court Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo resentenced Conrado Cantu to time served. See United States v. Cantu, No. 1:05-CR-458-1, 2019 WL 2498923 (S.D. Tex. June 17, 2019). Judge Marmolejo did so after finding that Cantu presented “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for a sentence reduction under the compassionate release statute contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

Importantly, Judge Marmolejo held that the criteria contained in the Sentencing Guidelines for compassionate release was inconsistent with the changes that Congress made to the compassionate release statute in the First Step Act. Because of that conflict, she concluded:

Thus, the correct interpretation of § 3582(c)(1)(A)—based on the text, statutory history and structure, and consideration of Congress’s ability to override any of the Commission’s policy statements “at any time,” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 394 (1989)—is that when a defendant brings a motion for a sentence reduction under the amended provision, the Court can determine whether any extraordinary and compelling reasons other than those delineated in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)–(C) warrant granting relief.

This is the first case, of which I’m aware, that a federal judge has held that nothing in the statutory text of § 3582(c), nor the Sentencing Guidelines, precludes a judge from making its own determination of what are “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances warranting a reduction of sentence. I hope to see many more.

I continue to believe that Congress intended for compassionate release to act as a second look provision in 1984 when it enacted the compassionate release provision while at the same time abolishing federal parole. The problem was that Congress handed over the triggering mechanism to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, which gave the Director the power to set the criteria no matter what the U.S. Sentencing Commission said. Congress fixed that problem in the First Step Act, by allowing federal judges to have the authority to reduce sentences even if the BOP Director finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons aren’t present. And the criteria in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 CMT. n.1(D) is inconsistent with these congressional changes and thus is no longer binding on federal judges.

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