AG Racine Leads Bipartisan Coalition of 25 AGs Calling on Congress to Clarify First Step Act & Apply Fair Sentencing Reforms to Low-Level Drug Offenses

AGs Urge Amendment to Law in the Wake of Supreme Court’s Decision in Terry v. United States  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine, along with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, today led a bipartisan coalition of 25 attorneys general urging Congress to amend the First Step Act and extend critical resentencing reforms to individuals convicted of the lowest-level crack cocaine offenses.

The attorneys general are calling on legislators to take this needed step in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Terry v. United States, which held that certain mid-level and high-level crack cocaine offenders could seek resentencing under the law, but low-level offenders were not eligible.

“It is fundamentally unfair and makes no sense that certain individuals convicted of higher-level crack cocaine offenses may seek a second chance, but those convicted of the lowest-level crimes are cut-off from relief,” said AG Racine. “We are calling on Congress to clarify that the sentencing relief provided by the First Step Act applies to everyone convicted of crack cocaine offenses under the earlier, repudiated regime, including the low-level offenders who are currently unfairly being excluded. This law was intended to right historic wrongs, including discrimination in federal drug sentencing. Congress should help finish this critical work.”

The First Step Act, landmark criminal justice reform legislation, passed Congress with strong bipartisan support in 2018. One key reform aimed to correct injustices caused by the earlier crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine sentencing regime. That now-discredited regime punished users and dealers of crack cocaine much more harshly than users and dealers of powder cocaine, which disproportionately harmed communities of color. 

In 2010, Congress had 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 cocaine offenses before 2010 who remained in prison. The First Step Act then included a provision that made previous drug sentencing reforms retroactive, allowing those serving harsh sentences imposed under the former federal law to seek relief. 

U.S. Senators Richard J. Durbin, Charles E. Grassley, Cory A. Booker, and Mike Lee—the drafters of the First Step Act—confirmed in an amicus brief that the sentencing relief was intended to apply to all crack cocaine offenders sentenced before 2010. Nevertheless, in Terry v. United States, the Supreme Court concluded that while the First Step Act clearly authorized certain mid- or high-level crack cocaine offenders to seek resentencing, it failed to extend relief to the lowest-level offenders.

In today’s letter, the attorneys general urge Congress to close that gap and clarify that the sentencing relief provided by the First Step Act extends to all individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses under the earlier regime, including the lowest-level offenders. They argue that there is no reason that only these low-level offenders should continue to serve sentences informed by now-discredited standards and that they should have an opportunity to seek a second chance.

A copy of the coalition’s letter to Congress is available here.

AG Racine and Utah AG Reyes led this letter and were joined by the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Guam, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

AG Racine previously led a coalition of 19 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in Terry v. United States, which argued that Congress clearly intended for the First Step Act’s reforms to include all crack cocaine offenders.