Powder cocaine offenses given lighter sentences compared to ‘rock’ cocaine
After years of fighting for fair federal sentencing reform for those convicted of selling crack cocaine, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt third-time low-level drug offenders a further blow.
In Terry vs. United States, the Justices ruled 9-0 and upheld Tarahrick Terry’s 15-year prison sentence because he was convicted for his third offense for selling crack cocaine. The amounts he sold were small, reported the Los Angeles Times. Terry argued that prisoners like him should be included in The First Step Act, signed by former President Donald Trump in 2018.
The First Step Act made the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The law’s intent was to reduce the disparities in sentencing for powder cocaine and crack cocaine convictions.
“While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and The First Step Act of 2018 bought us a long way toward eradicating the vestiges of the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity, some people have been left behind,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who supported the ruling, but regretted that Congress has not changed the sentencing guidelines for “career offenders,” reported the Times.
Given the small amount of crack that Terry possessed, the sentencing guidelines range from three to four years, Sotomayor added. But Terry was sentenced as a career offender. He possessed only 3.9 grams of crack, but he had two prior drug convictions as a teenager. The enhancement placed his sentence in the 15 to 20 year range.
Justice Clarence Thomas said Congress has not repealed the longer terms for three-time offenders, according to the article.
“Before 2010, the statutory penalties for that offense were 0 to 20 years, up to $1 million fine, or both. After 2010, those statutory penalties remain exactly the same,” wrote Thomas, about the ruling.
The First Step Act did not cover three-time offenders because they were not sentenced under mandatory-minimum guidelines, said the Times.
In 1986, at the height of the “crack epidemic,” Congress imposed mandatory five-year prison terms for those who possessed 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine. A 10-year mandatory-minimum was set for those who sold 50 grams of crack or 5 kilograms of powder cocaine. This is what triggered the racial disparity in sentencing, said the Times.
Black defendants were more likely to face crack cocaine charges than White defendants, who were more apt to face powder cocaine charges, according to a June 2021 Reuters article.
Terry, now 33, who is Black, pleaded guilty in Florida in 2008 to possessing a small amount of crack. He was sentenced to the maximum term of 15-1/2 years in prison.
According to the Bureau of Prisons, last year more than 2,500 higher-level crack offenders were released under the First Step Act. Thousands more have been released under other provisions of the First Step Act, reported Reuters.
The Justice Department said that there is no definitive number of how many people would have been affected if Terry won his case, but it estimated that the number might be “in the low three figures,” noted the Reuters article.
“This is no small injustice,” wrote Sotomayor, calling on Congress to amend the law.