D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is leading a coalition of fellow prosecutors who want to make sure that a relatively recent criminal justice reform law is applied more broadly to certain low-level drug offenders looking for new sentencing hearings.
Racine is among 19 U.S. attorneys general, including from Maryland and Virginia, demanding the U.S. Supreme Court affirm that the First Step Act of 2018 applies to not just the most serious criminals but to those who committed less serious crimes and were punished unfairly.
“There is no dispute that Black, brown and less well-off persons who were convicted of offenses involving crack-cocaine received disproportionate and severe sentences as compared to violators convicted of powder cocaine offenses,” Racine in a news release Monday.
The group filed an amicus brief in the case of Terry v. United States, which concerns the scope of the law that’s before the high court.
The First Step Act was approved by Congress with the intention of reforming the criminal justice system to reduce recidivism and lower the federal inmate population.
The law acted as a follow-up to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was supposed to address the differences between crack and powder cocaine sentences. Racine’s office said the law did not apply retroactively to cases earlier than 2010, which the First Step Act corrected.
Racine said that when authorities tackled the widespread use of crack-cocaine during the 1980s, federal sentencing laws were applied much more harshly to users and dealers of that form of the drug compared to the powder form. Anyone caught with crack for the first time was also subject to a mandatory prison term.
Racine also pointed to other statistics showing the unfairness of sentencing based on race that continued on well after the 1980s.
In 2006, Racine’s office said around 80% of those convicted of crack offenses were Black. Average prison time for Black people found guilty also jumped by almost 80%, from 1994 to 2003. That’s compared to an increase of less than 33% for white people convicted of drug offenses.
“The First Step Act was intended to provide relief to people serving harsh prison sentences because of unfair and racially discriminatory federal sentencing rules,” Racine said. “Not doing so would perpetuate the wrongs that the law sought to cure.”