U.S. Supreme Court rules on crack cocaine sentencing disparity

President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) into law on August 3, 2010. The Federal Sentencing Commission adopted the new guidelines pronounced in the FSA for crack-to-powder cocaine ratio with an effective date of November 1, 2011.

The rationale underlying the new law was focused centrally on reducing the disparity in federal convictions for crack cocaine defendants versus those charged with a crime involving powder cocaine. Prior to passage of the FSA, the ratio stood at 100:1. Following the law’s enactment, the disparity was reduced to 18:1. Additionally, the Act also provides for material reductions in the range of federal sentencing guidelines.

Initially, not all federal courts adopted the more lenient standard, with the result that some defendants — pre-Act offenders termed “pipeline prisoners” — who were sentenced after August 3, 2010, received harsher punishments under the old standard.

Edward Dorsey Sr. was one of those people. Dorsey was sentenced by an Illinois federal judge to a 10-year mandatory minimum term, when under the new guidelines he could have received a two-year sentence. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and refused to grant a rehearing in his case. Other defendants also have received the older, more stringent sentences despite being sentenced after passage of the FSA.

The U.S. Supreme Court acted last week to effectively and finally end the sentencing disparity, with a 5-4 majority ruling that every defendant sentenced following passage of the FSA is entitled to the benefit of the new lower sentences it provides.

That includes retroactive application of the law to all pipeline prisoners.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Crack sentencing gets a break in Supreme Court,” Barbara Leonard, June 21, 2012