Supreme Court unanimously rules certain crack offenders not eligible for resentencing

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously that certain low-level crack cocaine offenders are not eligible to be resentenced under a 2018 criminal justice reform law.

The decision, written by Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasAn obscure Supreme Court ruling is a cautionary tale of federal power Overnight Health Care: St. Louis reimposes mask mandate | Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry Florida asks Supreme Court to block CDC's limits on cruise ship industry MORE, shuts the door on hundreds of inmates who might have been eligible for leniency had the court reached a different conclusion.

The defendant in the case was Tarahrick Terry, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to 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.


He was backed by the Biden Department of Justice (DOJ) in arguing that he was eligible for a reduced sentence. 

But the court flatly rejected that position, calling it a faulty reading of federal law. Thomas wrote that Congress had not sought to retroactively relax the penalty associated with Terry's crime.

“To avoid this straightforward result,” Thomas wrote, “petitioner and the United States offer a sleight of hand.”

Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorSenate panel votes to make women register for draft No reason to pack the court Supreme Court ruling opens door to more campaign finance challenges MORE joined the judgment. But she wrote separately to express concerns that even as lawmakers have undertaken criminal justice reform efforts, “some people have been left behind.”

Terry’s argument for leniency traced back to a Reagan-era law that ushered in the so-called 100-1 rule — which applied vastly different penalties for crack versus powder cocaine possession — and Congress’s subsequent efforts to remedy the racial disparities in sentencing that followed.


Under the 1986 law, for example, trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same mandatory minimum sentence as trafficking only 5 grams of crack, which led to stiffer punishments for Black offenders.

Congress responded decades later by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which applied that earlier law retroactively to offenses committed before 2010.

Terry sought to have his sentence reduced under the new legal framework. After losing in the lower courts, he appealed to the Supreme Court, where he was backed by the Biden administration.

The court ultimately rejected Terry and the DOJ’s argument that the overlapping criminal justice reform statutes should be read broadly to encompass crimes like Terry’s.

Although former President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE signed the First Step Act of 2018, his administration asked the justices to side against Terry. 

President BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden vaccine rule sets stage for onslaught of lawsuits MORE’s position in the case marked not only a reversal from Trump, but also a dramatic break with the tough-on-crime ethos behind a 1986 crime bill he crafted while serving in the Senate.

The Reagan-era measure initially enjoyed broad congressional support. It was also 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.