This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Pepper v. United States, a case involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Jason Pepper, a convicted meth dealer, tried to paint a sympathetic picture of himself. While Pepper was in high school, his brother died. Soon after, his mother died. Then Pepper became depressed and tried to kill himself. A good student high school, after going through so many ordeals, Pepper found himself nearly homeless. He started using and selling meth, in an attempt to self-medicate and to support himself.
Pepper was sentenced by the District Court to 2 years in prison for selling meth. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Pepper’s conviction carried a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence. Pepper received a reduced sentence because he had no prior convictions and because he provided evidence to the prosecution against other defendants.
On appeal, the Circuit Court overturned Pepper’s sentence, ruling that the District Court abused its discretion by giving Pepper such a short sentence. While the appeal was ongoing, Pepper completed his 2 year sentence, got married, stayed drug free, got a job, and got straight A’s in college. Upon reconsideration of these developments, the District Court again sentenced Pepper to 2 years in prison. The Circuit Court reversed this decision again, ruling that the District Court could not consider post-conviction rehabilitation evidence in giving Pepper a sentence below the Federal Guidelines.
The U.S. Supreme Court must determine whether a federal district court judge may consider evidence of the defendant’s rehabilitation that occurred after conviction, or whether the judge must follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Justice Sotomayor seemed to support allowing judges to consider this type of evidence in determining sentence, saying that when she was a district court judge, post sentencing criminal conduct would make her wonder if the person really was worthy of a lower sentence or not.
Though the precise legal issue before the Court in this case is narrow, the justices could issue an opinion that has long-term consequences for the modern federal sentencing system.