Today the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, enabling 12,000 prisoners who were convicted under a previous law that applied harsh sentences to minor crack offenders to be released:
“In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation,” noted Commission chair, Judge Patti B. Saris. “Today’s action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied, and that federal crack cocaine offenders who meet certain criteria established by the Commission and considered by the courts may have their sentences reduced to a level consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.”
Under previous law, crack offenses led to sentences 100 times more severe than powder cocaine sentences. It took 500 grams of cocaine to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but only 5 grams of crack. Because African-American drug users tend are more likely to use crack, while white drug users tend to use powder cocaine, the practical effect of the disparity has been to fill the federal prison system with non-violent African-American offenders. Eighty to 90 percent of defendants convicted of crack offenses are black, while 70 percent of powder cocaine offenders are white or Hispanic. As one federal judge once put it, the disparity “makes the war on drugs look like a ‘war on minorities.’ ”
Last year, Congress passed the Act, substantially lowering the recommended sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine crimes, but it was not applied to people already serving time in prison under the old system. Today the Sentencing Commission ruled that offenders locked up for crack offenses before the new law took effect should also benefit.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, a vice chair of the commission commented, “I say justice demands this result.” Unless Congress intervenes, the retroactivity will take effect on November 1. The new guidelines not only rectify a decades-long injustice that has disproportionately affected minority communities, but will save an estimated $200 million over the next five years.