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July 18, 2019

Federal judge gives first-person account of FIRST STEP Act's impact through retroactive crack provision

The New York Times has this notable new first-person account of the FIRST STEP Act coming from a judge who was able to reduce a life sentence thanks to the Act's crack retroctivity provisions.  The piece is authored by Robin Rosenberg, and carries the headline "In ’99 He Was Sentenced to Life. Twenty Years Later, I Set Him Free." Here are excerpts:

In January 1999, Robert Clarence Potts III was sentenced to life in prison. He was 28, and had been convicted of drug and weapons charges. The federal judge sentencing him seemed to express some regret at the gravity of the penalty. But under the law at the time, Mr. Potts faced a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without release because of the type of offenses and his two previous convictions for drug and other offenses.

“You are facing a very tough sentence here, and it is very regrettable that you are,” the judge, James C. Paine of the United States District Court of the Southern District of Florida, told him. The judge added that “we are governed by the law and the guidelines and we are going to have to go by those.” And the law and sentencing guidelines meant “a term of life imprisonment,” he explained.

To that, Mr. Potts responded, “Sir, there is not much I can say.”  But it was what he did afterward that ultimately made the difference.

On Friday, Mr. Potts, now 49, is scheduled to be released from prison after more than 20 years — a turn of events made possible by the First Step Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last year.  Among other things, the law expanded early-release programs, modified sentencing laws and allowed defendants like Mr. Potts to seek a reduction in their sentence, a step toward correcting the country’s history of disproportionate sentences.

The decision whether to reduce his sentence fell to me when I was randomly assigned his case.  The twist was that I had been Judge Paine’s law clerk in 1989, 10 years before Mr. Potts was sent away.  Now I was a federal judge in the same courthouse where Judge Paine had served and where he had sentenced Mr. Potts two decades before....

Mr. Potts had served over 20 years in a high-security federal penitentiary when the First Step Act became law last December.  The First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act — signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 to reduce the disparity in sentencing for powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses — applicable to past cases.  The First Step Act also allowed a defendant like Mr. Potts to seek a sentence reduction even when the original sentence was for life.  The law provides wide discretion to the court to determine whether to reduce a sentence and by how much.

At his sentence reduction hearing, Mr. Potts had much more to say than he did back in 1999.  Before me, he was remorseful, dignified and hopeful.  He was proud of all that he had accomplished in over two decades in prison — proud of the courses he took in personal growth, responsible thinking, legal research and software, proud of his participation in nearly every health, nutrition and fitness class available.  Perhaps he derived his greatest pride from conquering a debilitating addiction and maintaining his sobriety.  As his lawyer explained to me, sobriety is not a foregone conclusion in prison, where drugs are widely available....

The true marker of a person’s character is what he does when he thinks no one is watching.  Because Mr. Potts was sentenced to life, no one had really been looking at what he had been doing.  But his unwavering dedication to improve himself over the last two decades, despite his circumstances, convinced me that his hope in his own future isn’t misplaced.

After a long hearing, I concluded that 20 years was more than sufficient as punishment for his past — and serious — crimes, and ordered his release. To help his transition, he will spend six months in a residential re-entry center.  I believe Mr. Potts’s story is one of redemption through self-improvement.  His case speaks to the importance of criminal justice reforms such as the First Step and Fair Sentencing Acts. His story illuminates the human impact of such reforms and a person’s capacity for hope and redemption.

July 18, 2019 at 01:26 PM | Permalink

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