U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday seemed skeptical that low-level crack cocaine offenders can benefit under a 2018 federal law that reduced certain prison sentences in part to address racial disparities detrimental to Black defendants.
The nine justices heard their final arguments of the court's nine-month term that began last October in a case involving a Florida man named Tarahrick Terry that tests the scope of the First Step Act signed into law by former President Donald Trump.
The provision in question made retroactive a 2010 law called the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced a disparity that made sentencing for crack cocaine crimes more severe than for powder cocaine crimes.
Black defendants were far more likely to face crack cocaine charges than white defendants, who were more apt to face powder cocaine charges. Terry, scheduled to be released from prison in September, is Black.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer indicated sympathy toward the idea that lower-level offenders should have benefited from the law, but said its language did not appear to support that interpretation.
"I mean I think they were much too high. I understand that," Breyer said of the long sentences. "But I can't get away from this statute."
Federal public defender Andrew Adler, representing Terry, told conservative Chief Justice John Roberts that the law unambiguously applies only to low-level crack offenders, not those convicted of other drug offenses.
Even though the Government joined Adler's position, the Court appointed amicus to take the other side and sadly seemed inclined to rule against the defendant. No matter how it comes out, what a cool accomplishment to argue in the High Court.