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Supreme Court weighs leniency for crack cocaine sentences

Supreme Court weighs leniency for crack cocaine sentences
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Tuesday weighed whether certain low-level crack cocaine offenders are eligible for reduced prison sentences under federal law.

In oral argument heard by teleconference, the justices scrutinized a pair of criminal justice reform measures that Congress passed in part to address the disproportionately harsh penalties given to some Black drug offenders.

Although many larger-scale crack offenders have qualified for sentence reductions, courts are split over whether Congress meant for the same leniency to apply to those convicted of possessing only small amounts of the drug.

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How the Supreme Court resolves the divide could affect the sentences of hundreds of low-level offenders, according to an estimate from the Justice Department. Some justices on Tuesday took issue with harsh sentences being served out for minor drug offenses, but struggled to give a broad reading to the legislative text.

“I mean, I think they were much too high. I understand that,” said Justice Stephen BreyerStephen Breyer Distortions in census numbers give a boost to Team Trump Supreme Court weighs leniency for crack cocaine sentences The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Biden sales pitch heads to Virginia and Louisiana MORE, referring to lengthy prison sentences for lower-level crack offenders. “But I can't get away from this statute.”

The case concerns Tarahrick Terry, who was arrested in 2008 in Florida for possession with intent to distribute just under 4 grams of crack. Terry, who had two prior drug convictions, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.

At the time of Terry’s sentencing, the so-called 100-1 rule was in effect, which applied vastly different penalties for crack versus powder cocaine. Trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same mandatory five-year minimum sentence as trafficking only five grams of crack, which led to stiffer punishment for Black offenders.

To address this racial inequity, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity. Eight years later, Congress passed the First Step Act, which applied that earlier law retroactively to offenses committed before 2010.

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But courts have reached different interpretations over just how broadly Congress intended for leniency.

In 2019, Terry sought to have his sentence reduced under the new legal framework. But the lower federal courts said minor offenses like his had been excluded by the congressional measures, prompting Terry’s appeal to the Supreme Court.  

Although former President TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE signed the First Step Act of 2018, his administration asked the justices to side against Terry. The Trump administration argued that low-level crack cocaine convictions were not “covered offenses” eligible for retroactive relief.

President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE reversed course, urging the justices to widen sentence-reduction eligibility to encompass low-level crack offenders.

A lawyer for the Justice Department on Tuesday argued that overlapping criminal justice reform statutes should be read broadly to encompass crimes like Terry’s.

“The First Step Act finishes the job that the Fair Sentencing Act started of erasing the taint of the racially disproportionate 100-to-1 ratio,” said Eric Feigin, deputy solicitor general.

Biden’s position in the case marks 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 by Black lawmakers, with legislative discussion playing out against a backdrop of fear over a perceived crack epidemic in inner city America. But gross disparities in sentencing to the detriment of Black Americans later emerged, prompting the legislative reforms decades later.

A decision in the case, Terry v. U.S., No. 20-5904, is expected this summer.