Supreme Court Expands Impact Of Fair Sentencing Act

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act applies to people convicted before the act was passed but sentenced afterwards. The Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, was designed to reduce the disparity between the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine offenses as compared to powder cocaine offenses.

The decision failed to follow the pattern of most recent criminal justice cases; it was decided by a vote of 5-4 but in this case Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with “liberals” on the court. Reuters notes:

Writing the court’s majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said Congress intended the law’s more lenient penalties to apply to offenders who committed their crimes before August 3, 2010, but were sentenced after that date. […]

In the opinion, Breyer said applying the more lenient penalties to all those sentenced after August 3, 2010, made it possible to foresee a reasonably smooth transition under new federal guidelines calling for lower sentences involving crack cocaine.

The court’s decision could affect thousands of defendants who were sentenced under the old, harsher guidelines. Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act, it took 100 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same minimum sentence as one gram of crack cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity from 100-to-one to 18-to-one.

Even under the new guidelines the mandatory minimum disparity continues to have a racially discrimination impact, because most powder cocaine users are white, while most crack cocaine users are black. When the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, black Americans made up roughly 13 percent of the population and 14 percent of monthly illegal drug users, but made up 80 percent of people convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, hailed the ruling, saying: “[t]oday’s decision marks another step toward racial fairness.”

Alex Brown