Prisoners convicted of possession of small amounts of drugs are seeking shorter sentences. While this conversation has been centered around marijuana possession and the disproportionate racial representation within the justice system, a recent case in Florida raised a question about the appropriate response to small amounts of substances.
The court ruled against reducing a man’s sentence for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine. Beginning in 2018, Congress has acknowledged its intentions to reduce sentencing for low-level drug crimes. Yet, both parties concluded that the sentence should not be reduced in this case.
Both parties have recognized the need to push to lessen the sentencing for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. However, this particular case brought the conservative and liberal leaders head-to-head to debate the punishment and its justification.
Each side had different perspectives on the validity of the request, but the ruling was unanimous. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas asserted that the case was not eligible for decreased sentencing on one side of the debate. On the other side, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the court’s reasoning but sought to enact change to the laws that bound the decision.
The Evolution of Possession Laws
Signed in 2018, the First Step Act was created to limit overcrowding and high levels of federal incarceration. The terms are ambiguous and fail to clearly define the policy on awarding retroactive sentence reductions for people convicted of low-level offenses. The act has highlighted the injustices within the system and has led to more significant opportunities for high-level offenders to receive less severe punishments.
Prior to the First Step Act, two laws were established that are relevant to this case: drug statutes introduced during the Reagan Era and a law passed in 2010 that reduced the penalties for crack cocaine.
Three classifications were created in the Reagan Era that standardized sentencing based on the amount of drugs possessed. The 2010 laws increased the amounts of crack cocaine needed to receive each respective sentence for possession. Increasing these limits allowed Congress to reduce the amount of prison time associated with each range of conviction.
Resentencing in Retrospect
The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act made the following changes:
• Tier 1: 10-year minimum sentence changed from 50 grams to 280 grams
• Tier 2: 5-year minimum sentence changes from 5 grams to 28 grams
These modifications left out the third tier, which applies to everyone who possessed less than the minimum amount covered by the second tier. Since the third tier was not changed, it is not associated with the 2018 rulings to allow retroactive sentencing for those affected by the law changes.
In this case, Tarahrick Terry was sentenced to over 15 years in prison for possessing 3.9 grams of cocaine in 2008. Although this was a low-level offense and is significantly lower than the tier two minimum today, Terry’s sentencing is not eligible for lowering since it did not apply to the modified laws.
Many, including the current administration, took issue with this formality. Attorney Oleg Fastovsky says, “Congress had little room for interpretation, but it was an important case to learn from.”
Congress’ ruling on Terry’s case was based strictly on the existing legislation. The case has opened the eyes of many to the injustices that remain and the necessary solutions.
[Image via Pexels]
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