Since Congress recognized the gaping racial disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenses and cocaine offenses and reduced the ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, courts have grappled with when and how to apply the statute to already-decided cases. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the reductions in the Fair Sentencing Act applied to at least those cases decided before the law was passed, but not yet sentenced. But questions remain about whether the statute applies retroactively to tens of thousands of other inmates who might seek reduced sentences.
On Friday, a federal appeals court panel issued a sweeping decision that held the reduced sentencing ratio should apply retroactively to all cases, not just because that was the intent of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but because failure to do so would be unconstitutional. In a powerful statement about the troubling history of drug sentencing, Sixth Circuit Judges Gilbert Merritt and Boyce Martin write:
The old 100-to-1 crack cocaine ratio has led to the mass incarceration of thousands of nonviolent prisoners under a law widely acknowledged as racially discriminatory. There were approximately 30,000 federal prisoners (about 15 percent of all federal prisoners) serving crack cocaine sentences in 2011. Thousands of these prisoners are incarcerated for life or for 20, 10, or 5 years under mandatory minimum crack cocaine sentences imposed prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. More than 80 percent of federal prisoners serving crack cocaine sentences are black. In fiscal year 2010, before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, almost 4,000 defendants, mainly black, received mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine. […]
The Fair Sentencing Act was a step forward, but it did not finish the job. The racial discrimination continues by virtue of a web of statutes, sentencing guidelines, and court cases that maintain the harsh provisions for those defendants sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act. If we continue now with a construction of the statute that perpetuates the discrimination, there is no longer any defense that the discrimination is unintentional. The discriminatory nature of the old sentencing regime is so obvious that it cannot seriously be argued that race does not play a role in the failure to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act. A “disparate impact” case now becomes an intentional subjugation or discriminatory purpose case. Like slavery and Jim Crow laws, the intentional maintenance of discriminatory sentences is a denial of equal protection.
The two-judge majority opinion also suggests the court would be inclined to strike down other deeply discriminatory and draconian sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders, which even the Congressional Research Service has flagged as a cause of the United States’ overwhelming prison population. Unfortunately, the dissenting Judge Ronald Lee Gilman’s opinion may better reflect the view of either a full Sixth Circuit panel or the Supreme Court justices who would review this case on appeal. Gilman puts the onus on Congress to make its law explicitly retroactive, and points to the failure of pre-Fair Sentencing Act constitutional challenges to the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity.