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May 8, 2021

Noting how carceral craziness and foolhardy finality fixations result in cases like Tarahrick Terry's

As highlighted in this post following this past week's SCOTUS oral argument, the questions from the Justices strongly suggest that the Supreme Court will soon rule that Tarahrick Terry is not entitled to seek a resentencing under the FIRST STEP Act provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  Over at SCOTUSblog, Ekow Yankah has this effective review of the Terry argument which spotlights a portion I found especially notable toward the end:

One dissonant note came late in the morning, when Justice Brett Kavanaugh embarked on an extended exchange with Mortara.  Rather than a sharp set of questions, Kavanaugh ruminated on, among other things, the history that led to the sentencing regime Congress sought to fix.  He recalled the 1986 death of college-basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose that shocked the nation and brought cocaine use squarely into the spotlight.  Recalling that Bias was only a year older than him and that he looked up to him, Kavanaugh (himself an avid basketball player and coach) mused that Bias’ death had motivated congressional action to impose harsher penalties on cocaine use, noting only casually that Bias died after using powdered cocaine.  It was, to this observer, a cringe-worthy moment of naivete; to draw a clear path from the traumatizing death of Bias to harsher punishment of crack cocaine is to ignore a sea of racial politics.  Len Bias’s death did not lead Congress to hammer down on Wall Street bankers doing coke.

Yankaw is right to spotlight generally how ugly racial realities were largely ignored throughout the Terry argument.  But even more "cringe-worthy" has been the way Congress, the US Sentencing Commission, the Department of Justice and the courts have created and sustained crazy carceral approaches to drug offenses for many decades even as the illogic, inefficacy and injustice of lengthy federal prison sentences in response to drug issues have been so plainly evident.  Apologies for a bit of a rant, but what follows is actually a reserved accounting of what strikes me a stunningly ugly (and still continuing) example of systemic injustice. 

For starters, what basis did Congress have back in 1986 to think that harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for any drugs (let alone for crack) would be a sound and sensible way to respond to either the overdose death of a basketball superstar or societal concerns about a new drug problem?  The history of alcohol Prohibition certainly is not a rousing tale of the efficacy of criminal justice responses to substance use, and racial disparities in other drug panics have marked US policies and practices for eons.  Moreover, not long before in 1970, as noted in this article, Congress repealed most drug mandatories with then-Texas Rep. GHW Bush saying doing so would result in "better justice and more appropriate sentences."  

Critically, the carceral craziness of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 goes even further than Congress deciding to re-embrace federal mandatory minimum provision for drug offenses.  Congress in 1986 had the even crazier idea to tether its harsh prison mandatory minimums to precise drug quantities rather than to offense role or violent acts or any other sounder sentencing factors.  And Congress further decided that just five grams of crack cocaine — the weight of a single nickel — would be enough to trigger five mandatory years in federal prison (while a full pound of the same stuff in powder form would not).       

As I highlighted in this recent post, in 1991 the US Sentencing Commission wrote a lengthy report to Congress detailing how misguided and racially disparate all mandatory minimum provisions were in operation; in 1995, the USSC wrote another report documenting the extreme racial disparities resulting from the 100-1 crack/powder ratio.  I had the honor in 1995 to still be clerking for Second Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi who wrote at that time in United States v. Then, 56 F.3d 464 (2d Cir. 1995), that, if Congress failed to respond to the USSC's expert analysis, "equal protection challenges based on claims of discriminatory purpose might well lie" or the USSC's reports "might nonetheless serve to support a claim of irrationality." Id. at 468 (Calabresi, J., concurring).

Aggravatingly, Congress did not do anything to address the 100-1 ratio for 15 more years until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, during which time tens of thousands of disproportionately black persons received disproportionately severe statutory and guideline sentences for crack offenses.  Critically, the USSC, the DOJ, and the courts ought also be faulted for carceral craziness in this period: the USSC refused for over a decade to even try to change the crack guidelines while awaiting congressional action, the DOJ (under both Prez Clinton and Prez Bush) was generally opposition to any major sentencing reforms, and courts consistently rejected any and all challenges to this racially disparate and irrational sentencing structure. 

Interestingly, the Booker case merits mention in this history not because it happened to be a crack case, but because some federal judges started using their new post-Booker discretion to do better in crack cases and the USSC advanced some modest (but still meaningful) crack guideline amendments as a result.  But, tellingly, DOJ still largely opposed district judges going below the crack guidelines after Booker (which required SCOTUS to issue the important Kimbrough decision), and many district judges still readily and regularly sentenced within the severe 100-1 crack guidelines even after Booker and Kimbrough made clear that they had broad authority to effectuate the USSC's expert analysis that the crack guidelines produced racial disparities and generally recommended prison terms that were much "greater than necessary." 

Of course, in August 2010, we finally get the Fair Sentencing Act from Congress.  Notably, the FSA did not unwind the key carceral craziness of tethering harsh mandatory prison minimums to precise drug quantities, nor did it provide for treating crack and powder offenses similarly.  Rather the FSA simply says it now takes 28 grams grams of crack — the weight of five quarters — to trigger five mandatory years in federal prison (though a full pound of the same stuff in powder form sill will not).  The US Sentencing Commission amends the crack guidelines downward accordingly as instructed by the FSA, and thankfully the federal sentencing world gets just a little bit less carceral crazy going forward for some crack cases. 

But even as the carceral craziness recedes a bit after the FSA of 2010, foolhardy finality fixations kick into high gear.  Notably, as noted in this post, international human rights law generally provides that, when legislators pass a new law to lighten sentences, offenders have a right to benefit from it retroactively.  But the Obama Justice Department argues in 2010 that federal law required that even crack defendants who had not yet been sentencing when the FSA was enacted still had to be subject to the 100-1 ratio for pre-FSA conduct even through everyone agreed that pre-FSA sentences for crack were unfair, excessive, ineffectual and produced extreme racial disparities.  The Supreme Court in the 2012 Dorsey case — by only a 5-4 margin — decides sentencing courts did not have to keep applying a misguided and suspect sentencing scheme in these pipeline cases.  But all the while the USSC, the DOJ and the courts all readily accept that nobody should get any retroactive benefit from the FSA statutory change simply because Congress did not say expressly that it wanted people still in prison still enduring the 100-1 ratio's carceral knee on their necks to have a chance to argue they should get to sooner breathe the air outside prison walls.           

Critically, as just suggested, retroactivity of lower crack sentences (or any other sentencing changes) in the federal system has never been automatic.  Persons in prison, even if permitted under applicable laws to get to court for resentencing, generally have to prove to a judge that public safety concerns and other equities weigh in favor of a lower sentence.  That is, for Tarahrick Terry and so many others, they are not actually arguing for resentencing, they are arguing that they should just have a chance to argue for discretionary resentencing.  In a law review article some years ago, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," I contend it ought to be a lot easier for a defendant to get access to court seeking resentencing because "the conceptual, policy, and practical reasons [that may justify] limiting review and reconsideration of final convictions are not nearly as compelling when only sentences are at issue."  I find it so frustrating discretionary resentencing for crack offenders remains so contested even when each and every federal policy-maker in the three branches of the federal government — Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission — have all expressly and formally declared that all 100-1 ratio pre-FSA crack prison sentences were unfair, excessive, ineffectual and produced extreme racial disparities.

Of course, Congress voted almost unanimously for the FIRST STEP Act, which is a huge bill designed to help reduce a lot of federal sentences and which included a provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  But, given the SCOTUS argument in Terry, it appears that because Congress did not use just the precise kind of magic words in that statutory provision, the lowest level of all crack offenders are to be categorically excluded from securing even a chance to argue for resentencing.  Sigh.  Injustice must sometimes be one of those turtles going all the way down as carceral craziness and foolhardy finality fixations persist circa 2021.  There are some heartening indications that we all know we can and should be doing a lot better in federal sentencing and elsewhere, but Terry is perhaps a useful reminder that the myriad sentencing and racial injustices of the past are never dead, and they are not even past.

Prior recent related posts on Terry:

May 8, 2021 at 02:59 PM | Permalink

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