During the summer, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, became law. This long overdue reform reduces the disparity, or double standard, between crack cocaine and powder cocaine at federal sentencing.
For years, the possession of five grams of cocaine base or crack would land you in prison for a mandatory minimum term of five years. If your drug of choice were cocaine powder, you would have to possess 100 grams in order to be subject to the same 5 year mandatory minimum sentence. In short, crack users would routinely suffer incredibly lengthy prison sentences, while users of cocaine seldom did. And it is no secret that the users of crack would tend to be people of color while the users of cocaine would tend to be white.
Originally, the double standard on the face of our sentencing laws was justified by the belief that cocaine base was somehow more dangerous than the powder form of the same drug. It was also fueled, no doubt, by the hysteria surrounding the crack epidemic of the 1980’s, a belief that our inner cities would be overrun by poor, jacked up blacks.
In any case, whether intentional or not, the Federal sentencing law certainly had an adverse impact on people of color. As a House of Representative report puts it:
Congress has changed a quarter-century-old law that has sent tens of thousands of blacks to prison for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient to those, mainly whites, caught with the same amount of the drug in powder form ….
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 closes the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. While it does not eliminate the disparity completely, it reduces the gap between crack and cocaine from 1 to 100 (1:100) to 1 to 18 (1:18). It also increases sentences of drug traffickers. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers praises the law as “a big step in the right direction.”
Questions remain as to whether the Fair Sentencing Act is retroactive, whether it applies to prisoners who were sentenced under the older, less fair sentencing regime. One thing is for sure. If you have a pending case under the old law or have been sentenced under it, but still have time to appeal, you should contact a lawyer now.