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ACLU LENS: Supreme Court Rules Fairer Sentences Apply to More Drug Cases

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
Ezekiel Edwards,
Former Special Counsel,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
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June 21, 2012

The Supreme Court ruled today that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), which reduced the disparity in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, applies to people whose offenses pre-date the law but who were sentenced after its passage. Read the opinion here.

The FSA was passed to correct the problems with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created an unfair sentencing scheme that unequally punished comparable offenses involving crack and powder cocaine — two forms of the same drug – and resulted in racially biased sentencing. To remedy the fact that the 100:1 ratio was without penological or scientific justification, and that it resulted in black defendants suffering significantly harsher penalties than white defendants, Congress passed the FSA and reduced the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. As we’ve written before, the new ratio is a step in the right direction, although the only truly fair and empirically sound ratio would be 1:1.

Today’s decision in Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States holds that people who committed offenses before the enactment of the FSA but who were sentenced after should be sentenced based on the new 18:1 ratio rather than the old and discredited ratio of 100:1. The ACLU applauds this decision, but recognizes that it is only one of many steps needed to both end overincarceration in this country and eliminate the discrimination pervasive throughout our criminal justice system. Given that the federal prison population rose again last year, and that half of federal inmates in 2010 were serving time for drug offenses, much more needs to be done to achieve meaningful criminal justice reform.

In its friend-of-the-court brief in Dorsey and Hill, the ACLU urged the Court to hold that Congress, in discarding the unfair and profoundly discriminatory 100:1 ratio, intended the FSA to apply in all sentencing proceedings that occur after its enactment.

In a statement, Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU, said:

“We are gratified by today’s ruling that the Fair Sentencing Act applies to all people sentenced after its passage. This decision upholds the Act’s self-proclaimed objective to ‘restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing’ and end a legacy of racial discrimination in criminal sentencing. The FSA was designed to eliminate racial discrimination, not perpetuate it.”

As we stated in our brief, “Congress’s pressing concerns with racial equality and proportionality in sentencing apply with equal force to conduct committed prior to the passage of the FSA as to conduct committed afterwards. It would be inconsistent with Congress’s purpose to end the legacy of inequitable cocaine sentencing for this Court to allow the defunct and flawed 100:1 ratio to govern any sentence imposed after the FSA’s enactment.” By its decision today, thankfully, the Court prevented such inconsistency and inequity.

In the news:

Supreme Court says new crack cocaine sentencing law should have been used in 2 Illinois cases (Washington Post)
Supreme Court: Use new drug sentencing law in crack cases (Chicago Tribune)

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