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Supreme Court Defines How Fair Sentencing Act Applies to Pre-2010 Cases

June 25, 2012

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act finally narrowed the enormous sentencing disparity between federal cocaine versus crack offenses.

The act increased the amount of crack needed to trigger the mandatory minimum five-year sentence from 5 to 28 grams and increased the amount needed to trigger the mandatory ten-year sentence from 50 to 280 grams. The question for the Supreme Court last week was whether the new sentencing scheme should apply to those convicted before, but not sentenced until after, the Act went into effect.  In a 5-4 opinion, Justice Breyer and the Court’s majority held that those sentenced after the Act went into effect would, in fact, get the benefit of the new sentencing provisions.

Writing for the majority, Breyer held that for purposes of sentencing, it did not matter that the two defendants in the case at hand were convicted of their crimes well before the Act went into effect on August 2, 2010, only that they were sentenced after the Act’s effective date.

The decision means that Defendant Corey Hill would not be subject to a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling 53 grams of crack cocaine in March 2007.  It also means that Defendant Edward Dorsey, who was convicted of selling 5.5 grams of crack in August 2008, will not be subject to a mandatory five years.

Justice Breyer stated that the Court’s interpretation was important to achieve the goals of uniformity and proportionality in sentencing.  The Court also noted that when Congress adopted the Act, it did not specifically state that the more lenient guidelines should not be applied to those convicted before the Act’s effective date.

The new sentencing provisions were in response to huge disparities in the federal sentencing guidelines’ treatment of crack versus powder cocaine offenses that have been in place for the past two decades.  Under the prior guidelines, first enacted in 1986, a defendant had to possess 100 times the amount of powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence for possessing crack cocaine.  This 100-to-1 ratio came under intense criticism for two decades from Congressional leaders, law enforcement, advocates of prison reform, civil rights groups and federal criminal defense attorneys.  Many viewed the disparity as racial discrimination since crack cocaine use was more prevalent in African-American communities. The Fair Sentencing Act lowered the 100-1 ratio to a more reasonable 18-1.

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