In addition to state “three-strikes” laws, there is a federal counterpart called the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984. It is meant to provide sentence enhancements for those with prior convictions involving firearms. If you get three such convictions, the ACCA kicks in. The ACCA provides for a 15-year minimum sentence on top of the sentence for the crime itself if you have three prior convictions for a “violent felony” or “serious drug offense,” each of which carries a 10-year maximum sentence.
Recently, in McNeill v. United States, the Supreme Court examined the question of whether the ACCA applied even to crimes where the state legislatures later reduced the sentence. McNeill had been convicted of drug trafficking in North Carolina six different times between 1991 and 1994. At the time of conviction, each crime had a maximum sentence of 10 years. In 1994, North Carolina reduced the sentence for selling cocaine to 38 months and the sentence for possessing cocaine with the intent to sell to 30 months. McNeill argued that since the state reduced the maximum amount of time from 10 years, the ACCA no longer applied. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the ACCA did apply.
The Court looked at the plain language of the Act and determined that what mattered was the offense at the time of conviction, not at the time of federal sentencing. If when McNeill was convicted, the penalty was 10 years, then he could not avoid the ACCA just because the state legislature later reduced the penalty.
It is hard to disagree with the Court’s logic, which is that if they adopted McNeill’s argument, some with prior convictions could watch them disappear entirely if the state legislature chose to reduce penalties for the crime. There needs to be some consistency in sentencing, or else law enforcement and the convicted alike will never feel sure of where they stand. Even so, this situation reminds me a little too much of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. You have a crime (usually involving drug possession) that may not be terribly harmful in the grand scheme of things. Yet the penalty is harsh and unyielding. You may ask whether possessing cocaine (even with the intent to sell) is really on the same level as a violent felony. No matter; for the purpose of sentencing, they are one and the same. At least the North Carolina legislature realized that cocaine possession did not merit such a harsh punishment and reduced it accordingly. Unfortunately, it did so too late for McNeill.
Sentencing needs to be consistent, and to carry weight. However, it is unfortunate that in the case of drug possession especially, there is so little room for sensible reconsideration of the penalties. Many have begun to rethink the war on drugs and the laws that have resulted from them. It could be decades, though, before we start to see widespread changes in, or even revocation of, drug laws across the country. Until then, those facing a drug conviction can only hope that a strong federal criminal defense attorney can reduce their charges before they face a sentence subject to the ACCA.