What You Need To Know:
The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Terry vs. United States Tuesday, a crucial case which could determine whether people jailed for possessing small amounts of crack cocaine will be eligible for reduced sentences.
The petitioner in the case, 33-year-old Tarahrick Terry, was sentenced to 15.5 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to possessing 3.9 grams, or 0.00859803 of a pound, of crack cocaine. In 2019, Terry petitioned for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act. Terry’s petition was denied by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the First Step Act only covered high and mid-level crack offenders, leaving Terry out of consideration.
The First Step Act of 2018 was passed in an attempt to remedy the racially discriminatory Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986, enacted during the 80’s crack epidemic that ravaged inner cities. With the 1986 legislation came the infamous 100-to-1 powder to crack cocaine ratio—meaning a person arrested with a small amount of crack cocaine would receive a much longer sentence than someone charged with possessing the same amount of powder cocaine.
Crack cocaine possession is usually sentenced in three tiers: Tier A generally carries a sentencing range of ten years to life; tier B carries a range of 5 to 40 years; and C carries a range of zero to 20 years. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered the disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession charges from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
Why We Need To Know:
Despite the changes, the act wasn’t retroactive, and many low-level offenders sentenced between 1986 and 2010 remained in prison. In 2018, Congress included a provision that extended the Fair Sentencing Act to people sentenced before 2010. Although the 2018 provision was enacted, the Trump administration concluded that possession of a small amount of crack cocaine was not a “covered offense.” Last month, the Biden administration reversed course, announcing the Justice Department now has concluded that Terry is eligible for a lesser sentence.
A ruling in the case is expected by the end of June and Terry is scheduled to be released from prison in September.
Although this is a step in the right direction, it surely is long overdue. Criminalizing drug use was never a good move, as many are driven to addiction for reasons beyond their control. Next comes big investment in the mental health of Americans, especially those affected by these discriminatory laws.