The unanimous ruling on the difference in cocaine is important to the text, but light to history

Opinion analysis

Sometimes, deep, conflicting social currents clash in huge sports and romantic prose. At other times, they were submerged in relatively dry land; underground rivers in the language desert.On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that decades of political turmoil surrounding the crack cocaine epidemic cannot force people to re-read a single, significant statutory clause, even if Its main author proposed different explanations. Thus, in Terry v. United States, The Supreme Court held that under the “First Step Act”, low-level cocaine dealers are not eligible for a heavy sentence, which in 2018 made senior offenders who receive a mandatory minimum sentence eligible for a review.

This View Written by Chief Justice Clarence Thomas. One might guess-this is purely my guess-that the task of the only black judge in the court is to write a case with profound racial influence. This is no coincidence.As Narrate EarlierIn 2008, Tararik Terry, then in his early 20s, was arrested in Florida on charges of carrying less than 4 grams of cocaine.He was accused 21 USC § 841(a)(1), The possession of intent to distribute cocaine is prohibited, and the sentence of cocaine is compared with powdered cocaine under 21 USC § 841(b)(1)(C). Section 841(b) provides for three levels of penalties. Level 3 crimes usually involve fewer drugs than Level 1 or Level 2. Terry was sentenced on the 3rd level. In addition, because he had two minor convictions as a teenager, he was regarded as a “professional criminal” and sentenced to slightly more than 15 1/2 years in prison according to the professional criminals clause of the US Sentencing Guidelines.

Even when Terry was arrested, he was re-examining the political forces that defined his punishment. The crack cocaine gap to a large extent symbolizes an ineffective and counterproductive drug war and a racist criminal law system.After decades of political pressure, Congress finally reformed the sentencing system in 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, Which narrowed the gap to 18:1 and eliminated the mandatory five-year sentence for cracking. In 2018, the First step bill Passed, the sentencing reform has retrospective effect, and past offenders are eligible for heavy sentences.

The first step bill applies retrospectively to persons sentenced for “covered crimes” and is defined as any crime for which the statutory penalty is “modified in accordance with Section 2 or Section 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act 2010”. The clear language of the Fair Sentencing Law increased the penalty for first-degree crimes from 50 grams and above to 280 grams and above, and changed the second-degree crimes from 5 to 50 grams to 28 to 280 grams. Although the natural interpretation is a level 3 sentence, the penalty for “unspecified number of cracks” will now be between 0 and 28 grams (instead of 0 to 5 grams before the Fair Sentencing Act), the level 3 regulations remain unchanged. Keeping level 3 crimes unchanged would result in offenders guilty of large amounts of cocaine being eligible for heavy sentences, but low-level drug dealers, such as Terry, may struggle in prison for decades. This interpretation is described as the negligence of the main bipartisan drafters of the bill, which led to the itinerant split on whether criminals such as Terry violated the “modified” “covered” crimes, making him eligible for a new sentence.

In the end, the court found that he was not. To keep a boring reading of the regulations, the court focuses on two important, if it is technically felt, facts, rather than a more unified interpretation of the regulations. First, the court held that Terry’s sentence has not been modified by the sentencing reform regulations. Although it was changed to a crime of level three or higher, it would naturally make people think that there should be a different interpretation of the punishment for the amount of medicine, but if the low-level regulations are not changed, it is not “modified.” That’s it!

In addition, the court held that although Terry was prosecuted in violation of federal law for intent to distribute cocaine, he was still sentenced according to the “professional crime” penalty system in the “Sentencing Guidelines”, and the “Fair Sentencing Act” and subsequent “Fair Penalties” The law does not touch on this system. The first step bill.

Reading the previous sentence, it seems difficult to disagree that this is the only decision available to the court. At first glance, the unanimous adoption of the decision may indicate that Terry Represents a neutral, non-partisan judgment, not a motivated explanation. However, after careful inspection, it was found that the decision was not without evidence of the court’s ideological fault, nor did it satisfactorily resolve the basic inconsistencies at the beginning of the case.

First, there are subtle signs of partisanship (or political valence or whatever one person likes). The majority opinion first tells the history that led to our current sentencing reform. The history narrated, perhaps all of the history, is a specially formed history that largely eliminates the controversy that marked the response of the American criminal law to the crack cocaine epidemic. In most people’s antique renderings, cocaine surged in the United States in the 1980s, bringing high-profile “cocaine-related” deaths and a wave of violent crime. The media, the public, and Congress all believe that cocaine is more addictive and dangerous than cocaine powder, and the United States is on the verge of a crack epidemic. In this context, the Congress, which passed almost unanimously, including most of the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly passed a new harsh drug law, including a mandatory minimum and a huge gap of 100:1 cocaine/powdered cocaine.

In this story, it is too late for Congress to reconsider the penalty ratio of 100:1, especially in conjunction with excessive sentencing guidelines. In addition, the majority opinion confidently borrowed the assertion in the Sentencing Committee report that racial hostility has nothing to do with the sentencing system; on the contrary, what caused Congress’s concern was the “injustice” towards the black community.

In this statement, they did not realize that the media reports of the end of the world may have been racialized, which surprised them. More compassionate account Our current, bigger The opioid crisis. Also missing is the controversial support Black elected officialAt that time, as it is now, they tried to take severe measures to combat crime, combined with social investment to solve the fundamental problems of addiction and crime, but they encountered the vast majority of political investment focused on policing. Ten years of evidence shows that crackle is more addictive than powdered cocaine. Most particularly, the disproportionate impact of this sentencing system on black Americans and other people of color is hardly mentioned.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor corrected history with a separate consent in an exciting footnote, expressing her objections so vividly that she pointed out that she could not join the part of the unanimous decision.

So, what is the fundamental disharmony at the core of the case? Why does Congress provide a way for large participants to seek heavy sentences while keeping the lowest-level street dealers out?

The court finally ruled that the only question raised by the “First Step Act” is whether Terry’s judgment is a covered crime, which is defined by the violation of the Fair Judgment Act. Since the penalties for minor offenders in Tier 3 have not changed, they are not included at all. In short, Terry was sentenced 13 years ago under the third level of the statute-specifically 21 USC § 841(b)(1)(C). If he is arrested and convicted today, he will still be sentenced according to the exact rules. The court stated that Congress’s special handling of these low-level crimes is justified because the lowest-level crimes (unlike the first and second levels) have never clearly distinguished between cocaine crimes and powdered cocaine crimes. Therefore, Congress does not Any discrepancies need to be corrected. Congress’s changes to punishments related to higher-level crimes shifted the natural meaning of punishments for the lowest-level crimes to be considered “trick.”

As a simple, almost boring, unanimous decision, Sotomayor turned the labor cost of the ruling into reality. Sotomayor did not hide the legal contradiction, but started her consent by pointing out the obvious: If Terry was convicted for distributing large amounts of cocaine, he is currently eligible for a reduced sentence. (In a vivid paragraph, she also explained the relative weight behind the 100:1 penalty difference; for example, the weight of cocaine in half a block of butter is the same as the powder in a gallon of paint can.)

Sotomayor emphasized the long-term political struggle to reform the cocaine/powdered cocaine gap, lamenting that the language negligence of Congress has left some people behind unexpectedly. She made it clear that the decades-long battle was not just because of “perceptions about unfairness”, and pointed out that 80% to 90% of those in prison for serious crimes were black, and among those who were in prison for powder Approximately 30% are black-cocaine crimes. Her agreement underscores the scientific arbitrariness of treating these drugs differently, and the sentencing committee has been urging for decades to change this discrepancy.

Sotomayor also put forward the argument that Terry’s status as a professional criminal allowed him to surpass the sentence of reform. Terry was sentenced to professional criminals for two previous juvenile drug crimes, which put him in jail for a total of four months. It was these crimes that made his next crime soar from 3 to 4 years in prison to 15 to 20 years in prison, and lost the life of another young black man. The interplay between the baseline differences in crack cocaine offenders and professional crime guidelines provides a policy rationale for the widespread application of reforms—rather than disqualifying those who have been sentenced to such harsh sentences. As Sotomayor pointed out, more than half of those who received a reduced sentence in the first year of the “First Step” plan were sentenced under professional criminal law.

Sotomayor’s consent made it clear that treating Terry as one of the few people who should be eligible for sentencing reforms but slipped through the cracks is unfair to hundreds of other people in similar situations, and they will Spend countless years in prison together, serving disproportionate sentences.However, in the end she joined the court and ruled that although the current language of the “First Step Act” may be peculiar, it will not “endure [a] “Read” to allow the lowest-level drug dealers to change their sentences. Sotomayor concluded that he hopes Congress will now begin to complete its work.

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