In the past, we have discussed the unequal treatment given to defendants who have been arrested for drug crimes where the primary difference was whether the illegal drug was crack cocaine or powder cocaine. Under the old federal criminal laws, people arrested and charged with crack cocaine crimes faced much stiffer penalties and prison sentences than those charged with similar powder cocaine charges. As an example, someone caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine could face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years while it would take 500 grams of powder cocaine to subject a defendant to the same mandatory minimum prison sentence.
Under the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress acted to bridge the gap between sentences for crack cocaine crimes and powder cocaine crimes. While the two crimes are still not considered equal for sentencing purposes, the large disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine crime sentences has diminished to some degree. The disparity was reduced from 100-1 to 18-1.
One question that remained when Congress decided to bring sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes closer together was whether defendants convicted of crack cocaine crimes sentenced under the old, harsher laws could petition the courts for a modified, lesser sentence considering the new law. There are thousands of federal inmates who have been convicted of crack cocaine crimes that would have greatly benefited had Congress decided to fix this disparity sooner.
The United States Sentencing Commission recently unanimously voted to apply this new law retroactively. This means that people who were convicted before the Fair Sentencing Act became effective can petition the court to have their sentences reduced consistent with the changes made in the law. It is estimated that this will affect more than 12,000 prison inmates and reduce prison sentences by an average of three years. It is also expected to save the government approximately $200 million.