Challenge Federal Court Decision Maklng Pregnancy the Basis for Increasing a Federal Prison Sentence



Friend of Court Brief Filed in Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Challenges as Unconstitutional and Dangerous to Maternal, Fetal, and Child Health Tennessee District Court Decision to Add Six Years to Lacey Weld’s Sentence

December 9, 2014, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and 99 other organizations and experts filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Ms. Lacey Weld. Ms. Weld is appealing the decision of a Tennessee federal court to add six years to her prison sentence because she was pregnant at the time she committed a federal offense.

Ms. Weld pled guilty to the crime of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and cooperated with the Department of Justice in its prosecution of others involved in this manufacturing operation. Following her plea, however, federal prosecutors argued that by struggling with addiction and by being in a “volatile” environment with dangerous “fumes” while pregnant, Ms. Weld put her “unborn child” at risk and deserved more punishment than the men who also participated in the manufacturing operation. The federal district court in Tennessee agreed and, in an unprecedented decision, interpreted the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that allow increased penalties for creating “a substantial risk of harm to the life of a minor” to permit increased penalties for women who are pregnant while committing a federal crime.

Amici include medical and public health experts and organizations, reproductive justice and women’s rights, criminal justice reform, drug policy reform, and civil rights and civil liberties organizations. (A full list of amici is available here). This extraordinary group of doctors, researchers, and organizations across diverse fields of expertise all agree that subjecting women to harsher and unequal sentences because of pregnancy is not permitted by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, is profoundly discriminatory, violates multiple constitutional guarantees, and if allowed to stand, would establish precedent that undermines maternal, fetal, and child health. Amici also challenge the grossly inaccurate medical claims regarding pregnant women and drug use that apparently influenced the court’s decision to increase Ms. Weld’s sentence.

“The sentence enhancement ordered in this case reinstates the discredited and impermissible reasoning that once justified virtually every kind of discrimination against women,” said Kylee Sunderlin, Soros Justice Fellow at NAPW and counsel for amici. Sunderlin explained, “The arguments for the enhanced penalty in this case are based on gender stereotypes, stigma, and medical misinformation.”

Earlier this year, NAPW, along with 48 reproductive justice, drug policy reform, women’s rights, and civil liberties organizations sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to renounce enhanced criminal penalties for women on the basis of pregnancy.

Ms. Weld is represented by John E. Eldridge of Knoxville, Tennessee.