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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Takes Issue With Drug Laws That Disproportionately Deliver Harsher Prison Sentences to African-Americans by 100–1 Ratio

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rutherford Institute 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 can have their sentences reconsidered in a fairer light. In an amicus brief filed in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union and R Street Institute in Jamell Birt v. United States, Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked the Court to order 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, be applied to all offenders retroactively.

“For too long, America has paid lip service to ideas about justice and equality while propping up discriminatory laws that serve to disproportionately punish 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 possess 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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