Appeals Court Cuts Crack Sentences

Appeals Court Cuts Crack Sentences May 22, 2013

In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentences for crack vs powder cocaine from 100-1 to 18-1. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the new sentencing guidelines applied to cases where the defendant had been convicted before that law was passed but not yet sentenced. Now the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that those sentenced under the old rules must have their sentences reduced as well. The court said:

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.

This ruling does not automatically commute the sentences imposed prior to 2010, but it does provide the basis for a new sentencing hearing to bring the sentence in line with the new guidelines. The blatantly racist nature of crack prosecutions (usually in federal court, where the sentences are longer than most state courts) is undeniable. In one California district, of more than 2000 cases of crack prosecutions in federal court, not a single defendant was white.

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