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Welch v. US: a surprise Supreme Court decision will let some federal prisoners out early

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Some federal prisoners might qualify for shorter sentences, or even release, after a Supreme Court ruling today that held that a decision last year on a major criminal law case would be applied retroactively.

On a vote of 7-1 in Welch v. United States, the Court ruled that its decision in Johnson v. United States, a case about federal sentencing law, would apply even to prisoners who have already been sentenced and whose cases are closed. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Johnson v. United States dealt with the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal version of "three strikes and you're out" laws that added five years to the sentences for criminals convicted of at least four "violent felonies" or serious drug crimes. But "violent felonies" isn't a legal term, and the catchall definition of federal law — "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another" — was so vague that it was unconstitutional, the Court ruled last year.

Before the Court heard the case, SCOTUSblog's Rory Little laid out in plain language what a decision to apply Johnson retroactively would mean:

if Johnson applies retroactively, any defendant who has been sentenced to a lengthy federal term as a "fourtime loser," with one of his three prior convictions found to be "violent" only under the residual clause, could demand resentencing and a substantial reduction of his sentence – or even immediate release.

The Court decided very quickly — it heard arguments March 30 and issued the opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, on a Monday, an unusual step.

It's not yet clear how many prisoners will be affected. As Vox's Dara Lind wrote last year, about 7,000 federal prisoners are serving time under the Armed Career Criminal Act, but it's not clear how many were sentenced using the definition of "violent felony" the Court has found to be too vague.

Go deeper:

  • Read the full opinion on the Supreme Court's website.
  • At SCOTUSblog, Rory Little took a deeper look at the issues of applying Johnson retroactively, and the thorny question at the heart of the case: As Supreme Court decisions establish new constitutional rights, who gets the benefit?
  • The biggest impact of Johnson v. US might be on other parts of federal law, which, as the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog notes, are already being struck down by lower courts for vagueness too.
  • Harvard Law School's Leah Litman wrote in 2015 about the implications of the Johnson ruling for prisoners at various stages of the post-conviction legal process. She points out one group that will probably never be helped: prisoners who took a plea deal rather than risk being sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

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