Hundreds if not thousands of federal prisoners are likely to have their sentences shortened and in some cases get immediate release under an opinion written a year ago by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the Washington Post reports. The ruling focused on one phrase in federal law that has created uncertainty and upheaval for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys facing a pile of prisoner requests to have their cases reviewed.
Federal inmates had until this weekend to challenge their prison terms after the Supreme Court labeled 12 words in the criminal code that the high court called “unconstitutionally vague.”
The ruling voided a section of law that prosecutors relied on to seek stiffer penalties for defendants they said were especially dangerous. Defense attorneys had decried the wording because it was used to brand too many defendants as violent. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in Maryland has had to hire two new attorneys to help respond to the hundreds of petitions from federal inmates seeking early release. Rosenstein and other prosecutors are concerned the ruling will lead to the early release of truly violent people.
It also could be painful for victims’ families if sentences imposed years ago unravel. For defense attorneys, the decision provides a new avenue to challenge lengthy sentences for prisoners who received severe penalties for nonviolent offenses, such as resisting arrest. “It was a dumping ground,” said Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project of federal public defenders. “It ended up sweeping in crimes that no one would think of as being violent.”