The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a revised federal law does not allow prison inmates to seek a reduction in their sentences for possessing small amounts of crack cocaine.
The court said the wording of one of the rare bipartisan achievements of the Trump administration, the First Step Act, which made sweeping changes to the criminal justice system, means that the law does not apply to low-level offenders, even though supporters said they intended it to do so.
Its decision was unanimous.
During the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, Congress passed a law providing that someone arrested for possessing a small amount of crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone who possessed 100 times that amount of powder cocaine.
In 2010, Congress reduced that disparity for future defendants, but it did not apply the change to those already convicted. The First Step Act, passed in 2018, was intended to apply the reduction to people in prison, allowing them to seek reduced sentences too.
The question for the court was whether the new law applied only to people convicted of possessing larger amounts of crack cocaine or to those arrested with only a small amount as well.
The case was brought by a Florida man, Tarahrick Terry, who was sentenced to 15-and-a-half years in prison for possessing 3.9 grams of crack cocaine — about the same weight as four paper clips. His sentence under the old law was the same as what someone would have received for possessing nearly a pound of powder cocaine.
Terry sought to have his sentence reduced under the First Step Act, but the lower courts said the law’s retroactivity provision applied only to two other categories of sentences for larger amounts of the drug, not to low-level offenses.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the decision but wrote separately suggesting that Congress should fix the problem.
“There is no apparent reason that career offenders,” such as the Florida man in this case, “should be left to serve out sentences that were unduly influenced by the 100-to-1 ratio,” a reference to the amount of powder versus crack cocaine that in the past had triggered a mandatory minimum sentence. But she said, “Unfortunately, the text will not bear that reading. Fortunately, Congress has numerous tools to right this injustice.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling means that hundreds of inmates who, like Terry, were convicted of possessing only small amounts of crack cocaine cannot seek to have their sentences reduced. Terry is scheduled to be released from prison in September.