Supreme Court Decision in Johnson v United States Could Reduce Sentences for Thousands
On Friday, June 26, following the marriage equality decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling regarding sentencing for people who have committed felonies. This ruling could potentially reduce sentences for thousands of people who were convicted unconstitutionally.
In a 7-1 decision on Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, ruling it unconstitutionally vague. This provision arbitrarily lengthens sentencing times for people who have been convicted of three or more “violent felonies,” which the provision defines as crimes that “present a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Many courts around the country have long debated the precise meaning of the language. Over the years, the Supreme Court had to rule on whether certain crimes fell into this definition of a violent felony because lower courts had no guidance on how to interpret the language. Finally, the Supreme Court struck down the provision because of its vagueness.
As states increasingly move towards use of for-profit prisons, this decision is crucial in reminding our country about what is most important – peoples’ lives and freedom. Often, these for-profit prisons are contracted by the government to keep prisons filled. This leads to forcefully funneling people into the prison system and imposing longer sentencing, regardless of actual crime rates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons pays for-profit prison corporations billions of dollars a year to hold people in prisons and these corporations seek to increase incarceration rates and sentencing periods in order to make more profit. It is unfair and unjust and it disproportionately affects the lives of marginalized groups of people. This ruling is a big win for us. Now that this provision is deemed unconstitutional, we can keep pushing forward the fight to end for-profit prison systems and the fight for justice.
by Taissa Morimoto, National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law Fellow