7th Circuit: Compassionate release not warranted despite prisoner’s ‘extraordinary’ rehabilitation efforts

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A man who has revitalized his life while incarcerated has again been denied an opportunity at a second chance beyond prison walls after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded rehabilitation efforts are not a ground for compassionate release.

At the tail end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998, Robin Peoples led a gang that robbed four Indiana banks at gunpoint, stealing about $105,000. On one occasion, Peoples pointed the gun at tellers and threatened to kill them if they did not hand over money. He also stole getaway cars, which, on two occasions, he then doused with gasoline and set on fire.

In 1999, Peoples was convicted on multiple counts of bank robbery, using a firearm during a felony and to commit a felony and maliciously destroying a vehicle by fire.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana sentenced Peoples to nearly 111 years in prison, consisting of current terms of about 16 years on the § 2113(d) and § 844(i) counts, 65 mandatory consecutive years on the § 924(c) counts, and an additional 30 mandatory consecutive years on the § 844(h) counts.

Peoples, who unsuccessfully appealed his convictions and sentence, took steps to improve himself while incarcerated. He successfully completed various classes, maintained good behavior and received no disciplinary infractions, and took steps to save another person’s life in prison.

“Peoples’s record in prison so impressed Bureau of Prisons personnel that nine correctional officers came forward and supported his motion for compassionate release that he filed under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) in February 2021,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the 7th Circuit. “Peoples saw early release as warranted because of his record of extraordinary rehabilitation and the reality that, as a result of the First Step Act’s amendments to § 924(c), he would face a much shorter sentence today for the same armed bank robberies.”

The 7th Circuit noted that Peoples was correct in stating that the First Step Act has changed the law and that if sentenced today, he would face a mandatory minimum total of 20 consecutive years for equivalent § 924(c) convictions – 45 years less than he faced at the time of his original 1999 sentencing.

“By its terms, however, the amendment only applies prospectively,” judges concluded.

The district court initially granted Peoples’ motion and ordered for his immediate release, but backtracked after the 7th Circuit ruled in the case of United States v. Thacker, 4 F.4th 569 (7th Cir. 2021). The holding there maintained that the compassionate release statute “cannot be used to effect a sentencing reduction at odds with Congress’s express determination embodied in § 403(b) of the First Step Act that the amendment to § 924(c)’s sentencing structure apply only prospectively.”

Under Thacker, a proper consideration of a motion for compassionate release proceeds in two steps, the 7th Circuit noted. First, the prisoner “must identify an ‘extraordinary and compelling’ reason warranting a sentence reduction,” which it affirmed that Peoples failed to do.

It also disagreed with Peoples’ argument that, notwithstanding Thacker, his “post-conviction conduct and rehabilitation alone” was an extraordinary and compelling reason warranting early release.

“To allow rehabilitation, standing alone, to serve as an extraordinary and compelling circumstance warranting early release would nearly bring us full circle. It would ‘obviously require[] the judge … to make their respective sentencing and release decisions upon their own assessments of the offender’s’ rehabilitation,” Scudder wrote. “It would bring back the ‘serious impediment[s] to an evenhanded and effective operation of the criminal justice system’ that motivated the Sentencing Reform Act —unwarranted sentencing disparities from judge to judge and uncertainty as to how long an offender would remain incarcerated.”

Finally, Scudder noted that it would run contrary to Congress’ statement in 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) that the “rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason” for compassionate release.

“We cannot read § 3582(c) to permit good prison conduct and rehabilitation alone to override Congress’s determinate sentencing scheme,” Scudder wrote. “But be careful not to overread our decision. … Our primary point is more limited: rehabilitation ‘cannot serve as a stand-alone reason’ for compassionate release. That observation resolves Peoples’s contention that his extraordinary record of rehabilitation is itself sufficient to warrant a new sentence of time served.”

It further declined Peoples’ argument that his rehabilitation alone could be an extraordinary and compelling reason for his release under Concepcion v. United States, 142 S. Ct. 2389, 2404 (2022).

“We decline to interpret § 3582(c)(1)(A) inconsistently with Congress’s decisions to make its amendment to § 924(c)’s stacking provision prospective and to have rehabilitation alone not serve as a justification for early release,” Scudder wrote.

Finally, the judges noted that Concepcion “does not alter” its understanding that the prospective amendments to § 924(c) are not an extraordinary and compelling reason for early release.

“Peoples’s conduct in prison is exemplary,” the opinion concluded. “But, standing alone, his rehabilitation efforts are not a ground for release under § 3582(c)(1)(A). The district court did not abuse its discretion reaching this same conclusion, so we affirm.”

The case is United States of America v. Robin Peoples, 21-2630.

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