US Supreme Court considers reducing crack cocaine sentences
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday examined reducing prison sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenders which have been criticized as racially discriminatory.

The much harsher sentences handed out for crack cocaine over powder cocaine under tough 1980s war-on-drugs guidelines have been blamed for fueling the stark racial disparity in US prisons.

A gram of crack cocaine was treated like 100 grams of powder cocaine under a 1986 law, a ratio which Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Tuesday described as "ridiculous."

Crack cocaine use was rampant at the time in some African American communities, and Black men in particular were severely impacted by the harsher sentences.

Congress sought to address the disparity in 2010 by making the ratio 18 to 1, but it did not make the law retroactive.

In 2018, then president Donald Trump signed the "First Step Act" which would apply the lesser sentences to those convicted between 1986 and 2010.

But it was not clear whether the relief applied to low-level offenders such as Tarahrick Terry, a Black man whose case is now before the Supreme Court.

Terry, 33, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008 for possession of 3.9 grams of crack cocaine.

He has asked for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act.

Terry's attorney, Andrew Adler, told the court the First Step Act would make "little sense" if it was not applied in his case.

"It would cover kilogram trafficking kingpins but exclude the lowest level dealers," Adler said.

He said there was no "coherent explanation for why Congress would have done that."

"Congress did not enact bipartisan criminal justice reform to create a new anomaly," Adler said, it was seeking to "purge the taint of the discredited 100 to one disparity."

The justices are expected to rule in the case, the last of 2020-2021 term, by June.