Indicating that the wording of 2018’s First Step Act makes resentencing more available to those convicted of possessing large amounts of crack, regardless of whether that was Congress’s intent, the Supreme Court remained uncertain Tuesday that the law also applies to those with relatively low-level possession convictions, reports the Washington Post.
The 2018 law was one of two Congress has passed to deal with the disparity that made sentences for crack cocaine crimes far more severe than those for powder cocaine. Black defendants were far more likely to be convicted of crack crimes, while powder cocaine defendants were more likely to be white.
The debate centers around the case of Tarahrick Terry, who received a nearly 16-year sentence for possessing less than five grams of crack, but who even liberal judges seemed to believe could not benefit from the changes Congress made to the law.
A law Congress passed in 2010 increased from 50 to 280 grams the amount of crack that would trigger the most severe penalties. A second tier, with lesser possible sentences, was increased from five grams to 28 grams. But the section of the law concerning smaller amounts, under which Terry was convicted, was not changed.
Terry argued that the overall revisions necessarily affected him and others sentenced under the old regime and that the 2018 law should give him the chance to also ask for a reduced sentence. While former president Donald Trump touted the law as a boon for African-American offenders, his Justice Department took a narrower reading and said it did not cover resentencing requests from Terry and similar defendants.
The department estimates that perhaps several hundred people are excluded. However, when the administration changed, so too did the DOJ’s opinion on the case, indicating that Terry now had the proper reading of the law.
During the last presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden was put on the defensive explaining his earlier support for the 1986 crack powder cocaine law. Biden, then a 44-year-old senator from Delaware, led the fight for the bill, which authorized new funding for drug treatment programs and stricter penalties for drug offenses.
Sixteen years after the bill’s passage, Biden disavowed the crack-powder provision, saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” quoting nuns who taught him as a child. His presidential campaign called the disparity in sentencing “a profound mistake” that he wants to reverse.