Biden urges leniency for harsh crack sentences fueled by his crime bill
The Biden administration on Wednesday endorsed a bid by low-level crack cocaine offenders for reduced prison sentences, a dramatic reversal that comes more than three decades after a Biden-crafted bill helped to fuel disproportionately harsh penalties for Black drug offenders.
In a brief filed to the Supreme Court, the administration urged the justices to widen sentence-reduction eligibility for certain drug offenses under a 2018 criminal justice reform law known as the First Step Act.
The administration’s support for leniency in the case marks a shift from former President Trump, who had asked the justices to side against defendant Tarahrick Terry in an appeal that will be argued in May before the Supreme Court.
More fundamentally, though, President Biden’s move represents a dramatic break with the tough-on-crime ethos behind a 1986 crime bill he crafted while serving in the Senate.
The measure initially enjoyed broad congressional support and was embraced at the time by Black lawmakers, with legislative discussion playing out against a backdrop of fear over a perceived crack epidemic. But gross disparities in sentencing later emerged, with a clear racial component.
The law established the so-called 100-1 rule, which imposed mandatory five-year minimum sentences for trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine — and set the same penalty for only five grams of crack, disproportionately punishing Black Americans.
The Justice Department’s brief on Wednesday formalizes a shift Biden made earlier in his political career, years after the 1986 crime bill had taken effect.
“The fact of the matter was that our intentions were good. But in the rush to legislation, we may not have gotten it right,” Biden said in a 2002 congressional hearing. “Looking back after 16 years, it is clear that the harsh crack penalties have had a disproportionate impact on African American communities.”
Terry, whose case is pending before the Supreme Court, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2008 to possession with intent to distribute just under four grams of crack cocaine, which followed at least one prior drug conviction. He appealed to the justices after lower courts denied his request for a lesser sentence.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, Terry v. U.S., No. 20-5904, on May 4.
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