Last Thursday, June 21, 2012, the United States Supreme Court issued decisions in Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States, stating that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 ("FSA"), designed to reduce the disparity between the sentences for federal criminal offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, applies to offenses committed prior to the law for which the offender was sentenced after its passage.
Importantly this does not apply to all cases involving individuals sentenced under the old rules. Instead, it relates only to the unique cases where the crime was committed before the law but the sentencing occurred afterward.
The FSA was intended to remedy the problems associated with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA"), specifically, its creation of an unfair sentencing system that disproportionately punished comparable offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, which are two forms of the same substance. The discrepancies in sentencing resulted from the ADAA's institution of a 100:1 ratio between the amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger minimum penalties. For instance, a 5-year minimum prison sentence would be triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine but 500 grams of powder. The FSA reduced the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1.
This discrepancy has long been a clear reminder of the illogical nature of many criminal sentencing rules. It remains very difficult to fairly enact general rules that place mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes without taking into account the specifics of each case.
The Supreme Court Rules The FSA Should Be Applied Retroactively
The Supreme Court's decisions hold that offenses committed before the enactment of the FSA but which were sentenced after should be sentenced based on the new 18:1 ratio. The Court concluded that, in passing the FSA, Congress clearly intended for the lesser penalties to be applied in such situations. In so holding, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, opined:
We rest our conclusion primarily upon the fact that a contrary determination would seriously undermine basic Federal Sentencing Guidelines objectives such as uniformity and proportionality in sentencing. Indeed, seen from that perspective, a contrary determination would (in respect to relevant groups of drug offenders) produce sentences less uniform and more disproportionate than if Congress had not enacted the Fair Sentencing Act at all.
The Court hypothesized about a scenario in which two individuals that committed the same offenses and were sentenced at the same time would receive radically different sentences depending on whether the crimes were committed prior to the passage of the FSA, stating:
For example, a first-time post-Act offender with five grams of crack, subject to a Guidelines range of 21 to 27 months, could receive two years of imprisonment, while an otherwise identical pre-Act offender would have to receive the 5-year mandatory minimum.