Race, Drugs And Sentencing At the Supreme Court




The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that low-level crack cocaine offenders convicted more than a decade ago can’t take advantage of a 2018 federal law to seek reduced prison time. The case was brought by Tarahrick Terry, a Black Florida man who was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for possessing 3.9 grams of crack cocaine — about the weight of four paper clips. Terry argued that he should be eligible for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act.


The First Step Act was Congress' latest attempt to undo 1980s federal drug laws that disproportionately punished Black people by allowing for much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine than for possession of powder cocaine. But the Court's ruling means people convicted of selling less than 28 grams of crack —about the weight of a AA battery — can't go back into court to seek a reduction.


The court, in a 9-0 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the First Step Act was limited by a technical omission: It left out the lowest rung of offenders. Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the discrepancy in a concurring opinion, noting that the law's sponsors urged the court to rule that it be applied to low-level offenders. But the law itself said something different, she wrote, an "injustice" that can be corrected only by Congress.


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