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Could the Federal Fair Sentencing Act Apply to All Federal Inmates Previously Charged With Crack Cocaine Crimes

As we have discussed on here several times, the federal government finally got around to reducing (not eliminating) the huge disparity between sentences for powder cocaine crimes and crack cocaine crimes. Under the old law, which was in effect for a long time, the difference between prison sentences for crack cocaine crimes versus powder cocaine crimes was about a 100-1 ratio. In other words, someone who possessed a quantity of crack cocaine was likely to get a much higher prison sentence than a similarly situated person who possessed the same quantity of powder cocaine.

It was clear that this sentencing disparity in federal drug cases was having a disproportionately negative effect on African-American defendants. There was no denying that they were the ones primarily serving these inflated sentences. There was also little to no justification for why crack cocaine sentences were so much worse than powder cocaine sentences.

Congress did change the law with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. While it did bring crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences closer together, there is still a pretty large disparity between those cases. The ratio in sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine cases is now about 18-1.

One question that had to be addressed after the Fair Sentencing Act was passed was whether the new law applies only to people sentenced after the law was passed, or people with drug cases pending or people who had already been sentenced for crack cocaine cases. The law ultimately had some retroactive effect applying to defendants who were charged with crack cocaine crimes before the law went into effect but were actually sentenced after it was passed.

However, in a recent crack cocaine case in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court noted the significant racial disparity caused by the previous sentencing rules and said that the Fair Sentencing Act should apply to people convicted and sentenced in drug cases before the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect. This case may or may not have any future implications for people serving a crack cocaine sentence in the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Florida, but it is something to watch.