Fair Sentencing Act not all that fair

Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014

In August 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. While its name is misleading, it does help begin to reduce the disparities created out of the “War on Drugs.”

The law was set to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine cases created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Before the Fair Sentencing Act, federal penalties for possessing an amount of crack 100 times smaller than the amount of cocaine would lead to the same penalty as one would receive for powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act lowered the crack-to-cocaine ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. While the Act still leaves some disparity, many defendants caught with smaller amounts of crack are no longer subject to mandatory 5 or 10-year prison sentences. Essentially, the Act raised the amount of crack necessary to impose the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence from 50 grams to 280 grams and the five-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 28.

Since 2010, though, the Act has faced legal hurdles in its application. Congress decides the question as to whether a law can be imposed retroactively. In this instance, Congress decided nothing.

In November 2011, Sen. Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to apply the new law to people who had committed their crimes before the Act was passed but were sentenced after.

One month before the senators’ letter, Judge D. Brock Hornby of Federal District Court in Maine wrote in his decision, Unites States of America vs. William Douglas, that he “would find it gravely disquieting to apply hereafter a sentencing penalty that Congress has declared to be unfair.”

The case involved Douglas selling 113.1 grams of crack to an undercover officer on four separate occasions in 2009. Douglas pleaded guilty to all charges on January 11, 2010. He was sentenced in October 2010, after the Fair Sentencing Act’s passage.

The Justice Department responded by appealing the sentence Judge Hornby imposed, saying Douglas should receive at least the minimum 10-year sentence.

In Dorsey v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act applied to defendants who committed a crack cocaine crime before the Act went into effect but who were sentenced after its effective date in August 2010. This applied to the William Douglas case Attorney General Eric Holder originally appealed.

This wasn’t the end for the problematic and confusing Act.
On May 17, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled the reforms outlined in the Fair Sentencing Act must be applied to all federal prisoners sentenced before the Act’s 2010 enactment. The Justice Department is currently seeking to reverse the Sixth Court of Appeals decision in United States of America v. Cornelius Demorris Blewett and Jarreous Jamone Blewitt.

It would seem a law that has been congressionally decided to be unfair and unjust, which has imposed decade-long sentences on disproportionally minority populations, should be happily discarded.

However, the Justice Department is seeking to continue imposing an unjust law. The sentences imposed out of the “War on Drugs” are disproportionate—so much so that a new law was enacted to help curtail it.

No matter the outcome of the Justice Department’s challenge to the Sixth Court of Appeals’ decision, the very idea that the Justice Department is truly seeking justice is no longer valid.

Originally Published in The Eastern Echo.

Image courtesy of The White House