Senior Judge Jack Weinstein, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Senior Judge Jack Weinstein, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Photo:  David Handschuh/ALM)

A federal judge in Brooklyn became one of the first in the country on Monday to use a new federal law to order the immediate release of a man who served more than a decade in prison for his role in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein wrote that Cheyenne Simons, the defendant, should be released immediately because of a new federal law that retroactively reduced the sentencing requirements for charges he had pleaded guilty to in 2008.

Simons, who faced various charges related to distributing crack cocaine, had served more than 11 years of his 12-year prison sentence when the decision was handed down on Monday. He was represented by Mildred Whalen from the Federal Defenders of New York.

“Mr. Simons and his family are very grateful to Judge Weinstein and greatly appreciate the time and thought he put into the re-sentencing,” Whalen said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which prosecuted the case and defended against Simons being released, declined to comment on the decision.

Weinstein’s opinion was based on two different federal laws, one of which was passed by Congress and signed into law late last year. That law, known as the First Step Act, included several different provisions related to criminal justice reform, many of which were irrelevant in this case.

The section that applied to Simons actually referred back to a different federal law enacted in 2010 called the Fair Sentencing Act. That legislation essentially lowered the statutory penalties for offenses involving crack cocaine, reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The sentencing ratio between the two forms of the drug was previously 100 to 1, but was reduced to 18 to 1 under the law.

But until last year, defendants sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act were not able to ask the court for a reduced sentence that would reflect the new federal scheme. The First Step Act changed that by allowing defendants to move for their sentence to be changed retroactively based on the new formulas enacted under the Fair Sentencing Act.

Simons, based on the charges he pleaded guilty to, faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison when he was sentenced in 2009. Under the new formula, which can now be referred to retroactively because of the First Step Act, his mandatory minimum sentence is eligible to be reduced to five years in prison, Weinstein wrote. Simons has already served that time, so Weinstein ordered his immediate release and sentenced him to time served.

“After serving more than 136 months of his 144-month original sentence, Simons is now eligible for immediate release,” Weinstein wrote in the decision. “While this decision does not substantially shorten his sentence, justice favors freedom over unnecessary incarceration. Every day of imprisonment that can be appropriately shortened in a case like this should be.”

Federal prosecutors had argued that the First Step Act did not make Simons eligible for a reduced sentence or immediate release. They wrote in a filing last month that the charges Simons pleaded guilty to were still eligible for his full 12-year sentence and argued that Weinstein could not reduce his time in prison.

Weinstein said their argument was flawed and that federal law permitted him to order Simons’ immediate release.

“The government is mistaken. We now have two well-considered statements of federal policy by Congress since the defendant was originally sentenced—the First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act,” Weinstein wrote. “Both favor sending fewer people to prison, imposing shorter sentences for drug crimes, and reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The court must consider this new governmental policy when deciding whether a reduction of defendant’s sentence is warranted.”

Weinstein wrote that, during his time in prison, Simons had taken significant steps toward rehabilitation, including obtaining his GED and completing several vocational and educational courses. He also has a job lined up for after his release. Requiring him, and others, to spend more time in prison would not contribute to public safety, but could instead lead to recidivism among defendants, Weinstein wrote.

“Public safety is not served by a defendant spending more time in prison than necessary. An overly harsh sentence may prove counterproductive, increasing a defendant’s likelihood to recidivate,” Weinstein wrote.

Federal prosecutors had accused Simons of distributing more than 800 grams of cocaine from a New York City Housing Authority development over the course of about a year and a half, starting in 2006. He will now be eligible for immediate release but will still be supervised over the next four years under Weinstein’s decision.


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