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December 13, 2010

"Don't return Jason Pepper to prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new editorial in today's Des Moines Register in response to the Supreme Court oral argument last week in Pepper v. US (previously discussed here and here).  Here are excerpts:

Jason Pepper's life changed dramatically when he was arrested in 2003 for possession and sale of methamphetamine.  The change might have been for the better, except that he has been entangled in the federal judicial bureaucracy for the past seven years.  His best hope now is that the U.S. Supreme Court will end his legal nightmare.

Pepper, 31, formerly of Akron, Ia., served a two-year sentence in federal prison, where he successfully completed drug treatment, and upon release went back to school, married his high school sweetheart, got a job and today is living a productive life in St. Joseph, Ill.  His debt to the government may not be not over, however: He faces the prospect of returning to federal prison where he could serve an additional sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in Pepper's appeal Monday, has the opportunity to limit that sentence to time served.  That is what it should do....

Pepper's life is on hold because federal judges disagree on whether his original sentence was too short.  He completed that sentence, but appeals judges later ruled it was too lenient, and he was subsequently resentenced to another 40 months in prison.  The question before the Supreme Court: Should he get credit for straightening out his life since his release from prison while his case was on appeal?

The answer would be obvious to those who believe the purpose of prison is not just retribution but reform, and it appears to have worked in this case.  What possible interest would be served by sending him back for more time in federal prison now?

Also troubling is why a federal case was made of a small-time drug offender such as Pepper in the first place.  Had his case been prosecuted in Iowa state court, he would not be facing the federal sentencing equivalent of double jeopardy.  Instead, based on his successful rehabilitation, he would have been eligible for early release from prison on parole and allowed to rebuild his life.

There is no equivalent parole system in the federal courts, and prison sentences measured in decades for minor drug offenders are common.  Meanwhile, defendants can be caught up for years in battles between trial courts and appeals courts over the proper length of sentences.  Congress tried to eliminate disparity in criminal sentencing, but in the process it created a rule-laden bureaucracy that does not fully acknowledge real life stories of individuals like Jason Pepper.

The Supreme Court should help change that by giving federal judges the discretion to weigh evidence of actual life experience in criminal sentences.

December 13, 2010 at 12:12 PM | Permalink


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Pepper's case shows that, contrary to what various commentators said about the case of the drug-and-gun-law-violating federal judge in Georgia, "small" drug cases are indeed prosecuted by the feds.

Posted by: lawyer | Dec 13, 2010 12:16:24 PM

well i look at this!

"Pepper's life is on hold because federal judges disagree on whether his original sentence was too short. He completed that sentence, but appeals judges later ruled it was too lenient, and he was subsequently resentenced to another 40 months in prison."

All i can say is if the courts couldn't get off their asses and resentece him BEFORE he finished the one the original court had orders...TOO FRIGGIN BAD. or as the old saying goes...."YOU SNOOZE! YOU LOSE!"

The second that sentence was DONE they legally under our constution lost any right to demand a REDO!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 14, 2010 1:20:41 AM

This is a good example of how the feds are too involved in too many aspects of our lives. They have no business poking their noses in what would normally be a state case. They spend time and money reviewing every state case to see if they want it - that needs to stop.

If the Supreme Court can't fix this then our legislators need to do so. Stop wasting prison space and taxpayers' money incarcerating non-violent petty drug offenders. It's not a deterrent anyway, in fact it can have quite a negative effect and keep someone from going straight with all the exposure to worse offenders.

How arrogant the federal government is when it comes to spending our money on federal prisoners while states take quite a different, common sense approach, which costs less money.

Pepper would make a good poster boy for an anti-fed campaign.

Posted by: Shelly T | Dec 14, 2010 2:49:15 PM

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