For a long time in federal criminal court, sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine were much harsher than sentences for crimes involving powder cocaine. In fact, all other things being equal, a person with 100 grams of powder cocaine may likely receive the same sentence as a person with 1 gram of crack cocaine. The Obama administration has discussed changing this system so that crack cocaine crimes are punished more in line with powder cocaine crimes in federal court.
Congress recently passed a law to help accomplish that goal, at least partially. The law does not equalize powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentences, but it significantly lowers the sentencing ratio. Now, all things being equal, 1 gram of powder cocaine is punished the same way as 18 grams of crack cocaine in federal criminal cases. Additionally, 28 grams of crack cocaine will trigger the 5 year minimum mandatory prison sentence while 280 grams of powder cocaine will trigger that 5 year minimum mandatory federal prison sentence.
Now, the question for many people who are serving sentences for crack cocaine crimes in federal prison, or have pending crack cocaine cases in federal court, is whether this new law applies to them. Can a person who is serving a sentence for a crack cocaine crime who was sentenced pursuant to the 100-1 ratio go back in front of a federal judge to get his/her sentence reduced? Can a person with a pending crack cocaine case be sentenced pursuant to the new 18-1 ratio? The new law does not address these questions, i.e. when the law becomes effective, or whether the law is retroactive. Normally, when a law does not address this issue of the effective date or retroactivity, it does not apply to prior or existing cases. Normally, it would only apply to cases where the date of the offense occurred after the date the law was officially passed. However, that issue will likely be argued and litigated in federal criminal cases going forward.