The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday weighs whether low-level crack cocaine offenders should benefit under a 2018 federal law that reduced certain prison sentences in part to address racial disparities detrimental to Black defendants.
The nine justices are set to hear their final arguments of their 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 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
The disparity was created by Congress in 1986 during that decade’s crack epidemic, creating 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 crack epidemic disproportionately affected inner cities that had higher proportions of Black residents. Black Americans over the years were far more likely to face charges related to crack cocaine than white Americans, who were more likely to face charges concerning powder cocaine.
The 2018 law was passed with bipartisan support in Congress. 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, which included various other criminal justice reforms.
President Joe Biden’s administration last month reversed course and said the Justice Department now has concluded that Terry, the defendant in case before the Supreme Court, is eligible for a lesser sentence.
Terry, scheduled to be released from prison in September, is Black.
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 will affect other defendants in the same position as Terry, though the Justice Department declined to specify how many there were.
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 defendants 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% were Black, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for sentencing reform.
A ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.
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