Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reductions Ruled Retroactive

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changed the way federal courts sentenced people accused of crack cocaine violations. While it didn’t completely eliminate the disparity between powder cocaine and crack sentences, it did improve things slightly. Adding to the good news of the FSA, a federal Appeals Court ruled this week to make the FSA retroactive, potentially giving thousands of inmates a route to an earlier release.

Before 2010, crack cocaine was sentenced at a rate 100 times more severe than powder cocaine. This had a disastrous impact on minority and urban communities as a conviction for a relatively small amount of crack could result in a decade behind bars due to harsh mandatory minimums.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced that disparity of crack to cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1—though not completely equal, it was a vast improvement. Following the passage of the FSA, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that defendants who had been convicted but not sentenced prior to the 2010 FSA passage date would be eligible for the shorter sentence. But, they didn’t speak to those thousands of inmates already serving the long crack-cocaine sentences.

cocaine possession sentencingFortunately, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals determined this week that the FSA should apply to all people sentenced under the prior, archaic crack possession laws. And though there is a chance that it could be appealed to the Supreme Court, the ruling is a positive one.

Writing for the majority, Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote that the FSA of 2010 “’can and should’ be interpreted to replace ‘the old, discriminatory mandatory minimums’ which weighed heavier on black defendants,” according to the Associated Press.

Though Judge Ronald Lee Gilman disagreed with the majority, it wasn’t for reasons one would imagine. In writing for the dissent, he explained that the new ratio (18:1) isn’t any less unconstitutional than the old ratio (100:1) and that the court also overstepped its bounds in taking what he sees as a legislative (law-writing) action. He suggested that the decision to make the FSA completely retroactive should be one made by Congress and not the court.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office could decide to file an appeal, though it would take some time for the matter to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, thousands of people (mostly men and mostly black) are serving sentences under the old law. This ruling provides them a route for release. Federal inmates will have to petition for a shorter sentence under this ruling.

The FSA marked a move towards equal protection under the law and equal enforcement of criminal statutes.  The United States has always struggled with this “equal” part as the numbers indicate disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system—from enforcement to prosecution, convictions, and sentencing.

 

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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