WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court hears oral argument Tuesday in a case that will determine whether a 2018 law gave prisoners a chance to reduce unfairly long sentences for possessing the smallest amounts of crack cocaine.
The bipartisan group of senators who championed the law have told the justices in a brief that they aimed to give everyone sentenced for crack cocaine possession under an old tough-on-drugs law a chance to get their sentence reduced.
That provision was central to the passage of the broader 2018 sentencing overhaul meant to make the criminal justice system more fair and reduce prison overcrowding. It was a signature bipartisan legislative accomplishment during the divisive partisan atmosphere of the Trump administration.
Some federal courts have interpreted the law that way. But four federal appeals courts have ruled that the 2018 law was written in a way that means it applies to defendants who had larger amounts of crack cocaine, but doesn’t apply to those who had the smallest amounts.
The lawyers for the defendant in the Supreme Court case, Tarahrick Terry, told the justices that “countless” of the lowest-level crack offenders are still serving their sentences, but “geography alone now determines whether they are even eligible for relief.”
Terry pleaded guilty to possessing 3.9 grams of crack in Florida in 2008 and was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which had three levels of penalties based on how much crack cocaine was possessed. That law had a now-infamous disparity that treated crack 100 times more severely than powder cocaine, which meant Black and Latino defendants disproportionately received harsher sentences.
Congress changed the sentencing laws twice since then. First in a 2010 law known as the Fair Sentencing Act, lawmakers changed the threshold for how much crack cocaine defendants had to have possessed before they qualified for a higher level and stiffer sentences. But that law only applied to new defendants, not for Terry and others who had been sentenced already.
Then Congress passed the 2018 law known as the First Step Act, which sought to make the 2010 law retroactive. That would mean those sentenced for crack cocaine possession under the 1986 law now could ask a judge to reduce their sentences.
That provision was key to the passage of the broader 2018 law, because a House bill without the provision could not get enough support in the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators told the justices in a brief in the case.
And outside groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union conditioned their support on such provisions, according to the brief from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.