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Supreme Court decision on crack convictions ‘shocking loss’, drug reform supporters say

The Supreme Court ruling restricting the use of a landmark drug reform law in 2018 landed like an anvil Monday morning at the Decarceration Collective, a Chicago law firm that seeks to free those serving prison sentences. ‘life imprisonment for federal drug crimes.

The unanimous decision said the law – which has been used to reduce the sentences of thousands of federal drug offenders, many of whom are accused of handling large amounts of crack cocaine – cannot be used to reduce the sentences of convicted persons. guilty of possession of small amounts of crack. The court’s decision came over objections from the law-makers, who said they intended to help these low-level offenders, and the Biden administration, whose Justice Department refused to. advocate for narrow interpretation of the law in court.

“It’s a shocking loss,” said MiAngel Cody, senior lawyer and judicial policy analyst at Decarceration Collective.

Cody said she was a “hub” convicted of possession of thousands of pounds of crack that was released under the 2018 law, known as the First Step Act, which sought to loosen harsh laws on drug sentences that have disproportionately punished blacks. But the court ruling means those convicted of selling less than 28 grams of crack – the weight of an AA battery – “cannot go back to court” to ask for a reduction, Cody said.

“They just had the door shut in their face, and it’s completely unfair,” she said. “It makes no sense from a public safety point of view.”

The case was brought by Tarahrick Terry, a black man from Florida who was sentenced to over 15 years in prison for possession of 3.9 grams of crack, about the weight of four paper clips. Terry argued that he should be eligible for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act.

The 2018 law was Congress’ latest attempt to overturn federal drug laws of the 1980s that provided much tougher penalties for possession of crack than for possession of powdered cocaine. The first set of changes, passed in 2010, narrowed the gap, but did not apply to people who had previously been convicted or to those convicted of possession of small amounts of crack cocaine. The First Step Act, which was passed in a burst of activity in the last few weeks of a lame convention, made previous changes retroactive – but still explicitly for those convicted of possession of greater amounts of crack.

President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act at the White House on December 21, 2018.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images File

Many people affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, like Terry, have received severe sentences for possession of small amounts of crack because they had previously been convicted of other drug offenses.

The lower courts ruled against 33-year-old Terry; then-President Donald Trump’s Justice Department argued that the First Step Act did not apply to him. The agency changed course under Biden – but that failed to convince the Supreme Court.

The court, in a 9-0 decision written by Judge Clarence Thomas, said the First Step Act was limited by one technical omission: it left out the lowest echelon of violators.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the gap in a concurring opinion, noting that promoters of the law urged the court to rule that it applies to low-level offenders. But the law itself said something different, she wrote, an “injustice” that can only be corrected by Congress.

The decision frustrated many who lobbied for the law across the political spectrum.

“I think that’s an absurd interpretation,” said Holly Harris, who lobbied for passage of the First Step Act as chairman and executive director of the Justice Action Network, which recruits lawmakers from left and right. to support changes in the criminal justice system. . “For those of us who were at the table arguing for this bill, the only thing we have said time and time again is that we want relief for low level nonviolent offenders.”

Mark Holden, chairman of the board of directors of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political group that has lobbied for the First Step Act, agreed, saying Congress should pass a law making reparation for violators unambiguous. low level.

“It should be done quickly,” Holden said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chairman of the judiciary committee, said on Monday that the Senate would work to correct the law and that he hoped there would be bipartisan support.

Harris said that while the decision was disappointing, this is an opportunity to garner congressional support for more criminal justice reform bills, including one that would clarify the intention of the First Step Act to low level offenders. She is also advocating for the Equal Act, which would completely eliminate the disparity in sentences between crack and powder.

In addition, his organization is urging the Biden administration to drop a memo from Trump’s Justice Department saying 24,000 non-violent inmates released at home to curb the spread of Covid-19 in prisons must be returned to jail if their sentence is not finished.

Jacki Phelps, legal counsel on appeal for the Decarceration Collective, said she believed the authors of the First Step Act had not made a mistake, but that the Supreme Court had.

The impact is difficult to calculate, as there is no simple way to measure the number of prisoners whose path to potential early release has been interrupted, Phelps said.

Cody and Phelps cited an example, in addition to Terry: Jahmal Green, 45, who is serving a life sentence for a conviction in 2006 for distributing less than a gram of crack in Iowa after convictions. previous for drugs.

Jahmal Green, left, in jail last fall with a friend who later died of Covid-19.Courtesy of Delyla Green

Green, who is black, had withdrawn all of his pending court applications because he was hoping more favorable law would help him, said Cody, who has followed his case. Lawyers representing many prisoners in similar situations have also stayed their appeals pending the decision in the Terry case, Phelps said. They expected it to be in their favor.

“We really don’t know how many people are sitting in federal prison for those paperclip-sized amounts whose claims have been blocked by this Terry decision,” said Phelps.

“If these defendants had sold more crack then they would be eligible for sentence relief. It is against what Congress wanted and against common sense.”

Delyla Green, 29, a niece of Jahmal Green, said in an interview that he is in an Arizona jail away from his family in Chicago and Minneapolis. He suffers from diabetes and has requested compassionate release but was refused, she said.

“It was so difficult,” she said. “My father, his brother, just passed away and he couldn’t have been there for that. He missed the birth of my son. He hasn’t had any luck in life, really.

She said that despite the Supreme Court’s setback, her family would continue to look for ways to reduce her sentence.

“We are not going to give up until he is free,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what it takes.”

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