Federal Court of Appeals applies crack sentences retroactively

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 changed the potential sentences that defendants face for crack cocaine offenses. The act’s goal was to bring sentences for crack cocaine offenses closer to sentences for offenses related to powder cocaine.

The new crack sentencing standards went into effect in August 2010, but this caused some confusion about how the new standards should apply to cases that were pending at that time. At first, federal prosecutors only wanted to apply the new standards in cases involving conduct that happened after August 2010, which would effectively leave the old standards intact for pending cases. Federal courts have reached different conclusions on the issue. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit weighed in on this issue, adding to the consensus that the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied retroactively.

The case of United States v. Dixon involved a defendant who was accused of committing a crack-related crime before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 went into effect, but was sentenced after the act went into effect. The trial judge sentenced Dixon according to the old standards. Dixon appealed, arguing that the Fair Sentencing Act’s lower sentences applied in his case.

Agreeing with Dixon, the 3rd Circuit found that the Fair Sentencing Act expressed a desire for consistency and fairness in sentencing. The 3rd Circuit also noted that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 has long instructed judges to apply the sentencing guidelines in effect on the day the defendant is sentenced. In context of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the 3rd Circuit found that Congress intended the Fair Sentencing Act to apply to all sentences going forward. To find otherwise, would create a paradoxical situation in which Congress enacted new and fairer sentences, but left many defendants to face unfair sentences for a period of time.

Source: United States v. Dixon, 10-4300, (3d Cir. Aug. 9, 2011)