U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday seemed skeptical that low-level crack cocaine offenders can benefit under a 2018 federal law that reduced certain prison sentences in part to address racial disparities detrimental to Black defendants.
The nine justices heard their final arguments of the court's nine-month term that began last October in a case involving a Florida man named Tarahrick Terry that tests the scope of the First Step Act signed into law by former President Donald Trump.
The provision in question made retroactive a 2010 law called the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced a disparity that made sentencing for crack cocaine crimes more severe than for powder cocaine crimes.
Black defendants were far more likely to face crack cocaine charges than white defendants, who were more apt to face powder cocaine charges. Terry, scheduled to be released from prison in September, is Black.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer indicated sympathy toward the idea that lower-level offenders should have benefited from the law, but said its language did not appear to support that interpretation.
"I mean I think they were much too high. I understand that," Breyer said of the long sentences. "But I can't get away from this statute."
Federal public defender Andrew Adler, representing Terry, told conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that the law unambiguously applies only to low-level crack offenders, not those convicted of other drug offenses. Justices from across the ideological spectrum seemed unconvinced.
"You told the chief (justice) your reading is unambiguous, but I don't think so," liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Adler.
Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett said Adler's argument would lead to "pretty sweeping" results.
The sentencing disparity was established by Congress in 1986 during that decade's crack epidemic. Lawmakers created a 100-to-one quantity ratio under which a person arrested with just a small amount of crack cocaine would receive a much larger sentence than someone charged with possessing the same amount of powder cocaine. The 2010 law reduced the ratio to 18-to-one, but did not apply to those already convicted.
The 2018 law was passed with bipartisan congressional support. Although Trump signed it, his administration subsequently concluded that possession of a small amount of crack cocaine was not a "covered offense" under the statute.
President Joe Biden's administration last month reversed course, saying the Justice Department now has concluded that Terry is eligible for a lesser sentence. read more
Some justices questioned why Congress would not have included low-level offenders in the First Step Act, with Sotomayor noting that a group of senators from both parties filed a brief backing Terry.
Terry, now 33, pleaded guilty in 2008 in Florida to one count of possession with intent to distribute 3.9 grams of crack cocaine. He was sentenced to 15-1/2 years in prison. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled against Terry's effort to reduce his sentence.
The Supreme Court's eventual ruling, due by the end of June, will affect potentially hundreds of inmates in the same position as Terry, Justice Department lawyer Eric Feigin told the justices.
Those convicted of higher-level crack offenses are already covered under the First Step Act. As of the end of last year, more than 2,500 people had been released from prison under that law, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Thousands more inmates have been released from prison as a result of other First Step Act provisions.
Of those resentenced under the crack cocaine provision of the First Step Act, 91 percent were Black, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for sentencing reform.
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