Attorney General Bonta Urges Congress to Further Address Historical Drug Sentencing Inequities by Amending the First Step Act

Thursday, September 2, 2021
Contact: (916) 210-6000,

Joins bipartisan coalition of 25 attorneys general calling on Congress to extend existing resentencing relief to all individuals convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses

OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today joined a bipartisan coalition of 25 attorneys general in urging Congress to amend the First Step Act of 2018 to ensure its resentencing relief extends to all individuals previously convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses. The First Step Act enacted a number of commonsense criminal justice reforms, including retroactive relief for individuals convicted under the now-discredited sentencing regime that treated crack cocaine and powder cocaine radically differently under the law. However, following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, some individuals convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses remain categorically ineligible for resentencing. The coalition urges Congress to amend the First Step Act to clarify that its retroactive relief applies to all individuals sentenced under the prior regime.

“We can’t undo the damage caused by the failed war on drugs, but we can demand change,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Today, a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general is doing just that. People unjustly sentenced to decades in prison for low-level crack cocaine offenses deserve relief under the law. They deserve a chance to rebuild their lives. We’re urging Congress to help make that happen by ensuring the First Step Act applies to everyone. All of our communities are entitled to equal justice under the law.”

Congress enacted the historic First Step Act to modernize the criminal justice system, implementing comprehensive reform in areas such as corrections, criminal charging, community re-entry, and beyond. The product of a unique bipartisan consensus, the act passed with overwhelming support from organizations across the ideological spectrum, as well as over three dozen attorneys general who supported the act as a critical tool for strengthening our criminal justice system and better serving the people of our states. One of the First Step Act’s key pillars was sentencing reform. This reform included Section 404, which provides retroactive relief for individuals sentenced under the discarded “100-to-1 crack-cocaine-to-powder-cocaine ratio” that Congress repudiated through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. That earlier legislation abolished the 100-to-1 ratio, reflecting the overwhelming consensus that treating crack cocaine and powder cocaine differently exacerbated racial inequality in the criminal justice system and resulted in unjustly severe sentences for low-level users of crack cocaine. The First Step Act built on the Fair Sentencing Act to specifically allow for retroactive resentencing relief.

In Terry v. United States, the Supreme Court concluded that, while Section 404 clearly authorized certain individuals convicted of mid- or high-level crack cocaine offenses to seek resentencing, it did not extend relief to certain individuals convicted of low-level offenses. As a result, these individuals are now the only ones sentenced under the earlier crack cocaine quantities that remain categorically ineligible for the First Step Act’s historic relief. In today’s letter, the bipartisan coalition urges Congress to close this gap. There is no reason why these individuals — and these individuals alone — should continue to serve sentences informed by the now-discredited crack-to-powder ratio.

In sending the letter, Attorney General Bonta joins the attorneys general of the District of Columbia, Utah, 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.

A copy of the letter is available here.

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