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On The Front Lines

Coalition Calls for Reform of Drug Laws That Delivered Harsher Prison Sentences by 100–1 Ratio to Minorities for Low-Level Offenses

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of a broader push for criminal justice reform, a wide-ranging coalition of civil liberties and public policy groups, as well as a bipartisan group of senators, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that individuals subjected to discriminatory drug laws that disproportionately, by a 100-1 ratio, deliver harsher prison sentences to African-Americans for low-level offenses can have their sentences reconsidered in a fairer light. Several circuit courts have ruled that the First Step Act of 2018, which sought to redress unfair disparities in how persons convicted of possessing crack and powder cocaine were sentenced, only applies to those serving sentences for large quantities of crack. In an amicus brief filed in conjunction with the American Conservative Union, Cato Institute and Lincoln Institute in Tarahrick Terry v. United States, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to order that the First Step Act’s opportunities for redress be applied to all offenders retroactively, insisting that Congress had always meant to include those convicted of small quantity offenses in its relief efforts. The attorneys general of D.C. and 18 other states, as well as four U.S. Senators, also support retroactive sentencing reforms for low-level offenders.

Attorneys Joshua C. Toll, Marisa Maleck, Joshua N. Mitchell and Edward A. Benoit of King & Spalding LLP in Washington, D.C., assisted the coalition in presenting arguments in the Terry amicus brief.

"For too long, America has paid lip service to ideas about justice and equality while propping up discriminatory laws that serve to disproportionately disenfranchise huge segments of the citizenry based on the color of their skin,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If we are to ever move forward and rebuild our shattered communities, we must begin by ensuring all Americans have a fair shot at justice.” 

As part of the federal government’s “war on drugs,” individuals convicted of possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 could be sentenced to life imprisonment. One would have to 100 times as much powder cocaine to trigger a similarly harsh sentence. Because crack cocaine, a rock-like form of the drug that is smoked, was more prevalent in African-American communities, the sentencing disparity resulted in incarceration rates that had a severely disproportionate impact on African-American communities. Although Congress repudiated this harsh punishment of crack cocaine offenders by increasing the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger particular sentencing ranges, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 did not apply retroactively, leaving thousands of individuals to serve sentences considerably longer than they should have been. Then in 2018, Congress attempted to address the disparity with the First Step Act, which retroactively authorized the resentencing of defendants convicted prior to 2010. Despite Congress’ intent to allow a sentencing reduction for crack cocaine offenders, some courts have held that the First Step Act’s resentencing authority does not extend to persons convicted of smaller amounts of crack cocaine.  In their amicus brief to the Supreme Court, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argue that the intent of the First Step Act should be enforced by making all persons convicted under the harsh laws aimed at crack cocaine eligible for resentencing and addressing the racial disparities that resulted from those harsh laws. 

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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