Is SCOTUS right not to allow reduced charges for low-level crack offenders?


Fact Box

  • On Monday, June 14, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that prison inmates cannot request a reduction in their criminal sentences for the possession of small amounts of cocaine. 
  • Former President Trump signed the First Step Act into law in 2018 that released 3,000 inmates and reduced the sentences of 1,700 convicts. 
  • Although the act released many prisoners, a few hundred were left out. For Monday’s case, Tarahrick Terry was one of them, sentenced to 16 years in prison for the “intent to distribute” 3.9 grams of crack cocaine. He requested the court revise his sentence by the 2018 act, but was denied under the section of the law applying to “career criminals.”
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was the initial catalyst for drug disparity because at the time crack cocaine was seen as highly dangerous compared to powder. The Act authorized the 100-1 ratio making a gram of crack equal to 100 grams of powder.

Morgan (No)

Jail/prison is meant to be rehabilitating, not a way to torture and keep people locked up. If an individual is making good progress in their rehabilitation and is trying to turn their life around, they should be considered for a lower sentence as an incentive to keep working hard. Rather than intensely punishing those who have fallen victim to substance abuse, harsher sentences should fall upon those who do the drug dealing than those who acquire it from the source. Users need rehabilitation, help, and guidance. 

Many sentences do not consider racial bias as a factor. The United States legal system is rife with racial bias, specifically against Black and Brown minority communities who are disproportionately affected by drug use and violence. This fact often isn't considered in sentences or when a reduced sentence is requested. This makes the sentencing process unfair to those who may be part of marginalized communities and receive unjust sentences initially. And not only are sentences influenced by racial bias, but enforcement of drug laws by law enforcement is also discriminatory across the country. 

Some laws have changed since individuals were sentenced, and those charged before those changes should be eligible for a reduced sentence if their situation permits it, to keep in line with the law. In the case of Terry versus the United States, Tarahrick Terry 'sought resentencing on the grounds that he was convicted of a crack offense modified by the Fair Sentencing Act that was passed by Congress in 2010'. Instances like these are unfair to citizens, who should be able to seek lesser sentences as the law changes.  

Heather (Yes)

SCOTUS is right not to allow reduced charges for low-level crack offenders because it is not responsible for making laws. Congress is, and the sentencing would still remain the same under current law, even if the low-level tier possession amounts had also been changed. SCOTUS is upholding the law as it is currently written, and Congress has the responsibility for correcting any errors that may have been unintentional when enacting the First Step Act, not SCOTUS. The US has a three-branch system of governing for a definite separation of powers to prevent one branch from gaining more control than the other, and though it may seem unjust for SCOTUS to not intervene and rewrite this law for Congress, doing so would have clearly overstepped the boundaries of what SCOTUS is constitutionally authorized to do; and, all justices reached a unanimous decision on this point.

A second valid concern that this will most likely require a Congressional revision as even if the possession amounts for low-level crack offenders had been changed, it does not ultimately make a real difference in their sentencing. As Justice Thomas further expressed, 'Before 2010, the statutory penalty was 0-20 years. After 2010, the statutory penalty is still 0-20 years.' Terry was also noted as being a 'career criminal' who would not have qualified to receive any legal relief anyway. Congress, not SCOTUS, has the authority and responsibility for revising this law to make it more clear and fair for low-level crack offenders.

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