N.C. attorney general argues for fair resentencing for low-level crack cocaine offenses

N.C. attorney general argues for fair resentencing for low-level crack cocaine offenses
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is urging the Supreme Court to ensure people serving harsh sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses can seek fair resentencing. (Source: Campaign website)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is urging the Supreme Court to ensure people serving harsh sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses can seek fair resentencing.

This would happen under the First Step Act, a landmark criminal justice reform legislation that Congress passed in 2018.

Attorney General Stein, along with a coalition of 18 attorneys general filed the amicus brief in Terry v. United States, a case concerning whether the resentencing reforms of the First Step Act extend to people convicted of the lowest-level crack cocaine offenses as they do to those convicted of higher-level offenses.

The coalition points to a consensus that sentencing that disproportionately punished users and dealers of crack cocaine over users and dealers of powder cocaine was unjust and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The attorneys general say Congress passed the First Step Act to right historic wrongs and intended that the law applies to all individuals - including the lowest-level offenders - who were sentenced extremely harshly under the previous federal guidelines.

“When people commit similar crimes related to similar drugs their sentencing should be similar,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “This has not been the case for users of crack cocaine and powder cocaine – and the evidence is overwhelming that people of color have received longer sentences. The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which I am proud to co-chair, is working to address sentencing disparities and to improve how our state responds to people with substance use disorder. For these reasons, I am urging the Supreme Court to ensure that the First Step Act applies to people convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses.”

In the 1980s, the states and the federal government responded to the crack epidemic with aggressive penalties and targeted criminalization. Federal sentencing laws treated crack much more harshly than powder cocaine, with 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine resulting in the same penalties (known as the 100:1 ratio). Crack was also the only drug that carried a mandatory prison term for the first offense of simple possession.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. However, the law did not help the many people sentenced for crack offenses before 2010 who remained in prison.

The First Step Act included a provision that made previous drug sentencing reforms retroactive, allowing those serving harsh sentences imposed under the former federal law to seek relief.

Attorney General Stein was joined in filing the brief by the Attorneys General of Colorado, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

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