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Supreme Court rules against reduced sentence for small possession of crack cocaine

The Supreme Court ruled Monday convicts whose crack cocaine possession amounts do not trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence are not allowed to seek a reduced sentence under the Fair Step Act. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI
The Supreme Court ruled Monday convicts whose crack cocaine possession amounts do not trigger a mandatory minimum prison sentence are not allowed to seek a reduced sentence under the Fair Step Act. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI | License Photo

June 14 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Fair Step Act of 2018 did not allow a convict who possessed a small amount of crack cocaine to seek reduced sentence.

At issue, was the First Step Act signed into law in December 2018 by then-President Donald Trump with bipartisan congressional support, to revise the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to make it apply retroactively.

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The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the mandatory minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to about 18:1, but applied only to future defendants. The 100:1 ratio, implemented during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, allowed someone possessing 5 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone possessing 500 grams of crack.

The Fair Sentencing Act, which increased the crack quantity threshold for the five-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 28 grams, took effect about a decade and a half after the U.S. Sentencing Commission noted harsher sentences against crack cocaine disproportionately impacted Black people.

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The court held Monday petitioner Tarahrick Terry, who had sought a reduced sentence for his 2008 crack conviction under the Fair Step Act of 2018, was not covered by the law because the 3.9 grams of crack cocaine he was convicted of possessing was too small to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.

"The question here is whether crack offenders who did not trigger a mandatory minimum qualify," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the opinion. "They do not."

The District Court sentenced Terry to 15-and-half years in prison after he pled guilty in 2008 to possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of crack in exchange for the government dropping two firearm charges. The court found he possessed about 4 grams of crack, and he was a "career offender" for recidivism allowing it to impose a higher sentence than drug-quantity guidelines would otherwise allow.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred with the opinion based on the text of the FSA, but said that Congress did not intend to leave people out, and urged lawmakers to act.

"There is no apparent reason that career offenders," sentenced under the same guidelines as Terry, "should be left to serve out sentences that were unduly influenced by the 100-to-1 ratio," Sotomayor wrote.

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"Indeed, the bipartisan lead sponsors of the First Step Act have urged this Court to hold that the Act makes retroactive relief broadly available to all individuals sentenced for crack-cocaine offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act...Unfortunately, the text will not bear that reading. Fortunately, Congress has numerous tools to right this injustice."

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