Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys are celebrating a decision by the United States Sentencing Commission will affect the length of sentences being served by thousands of people imprisoned for crack cocaine-related offenses. As discussed previously, under sentencing guidelines enacted in 1986, a person convicted for an offense involving crack cocaine could face significantly longer prison terms than a person caught with the same amount of powder cocaine.
On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 ("FSA") into law. The FSA was intended to reduce the dramatic disparity in sentencing between individuals convicted of drug offenses involving crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.
While critics of the old guidelines applauded the FSA, it was unclear whether these changes in sentencing should be applied retroactively to cases where a defendant had already been charged prior to the FSA taking effect. Courts were divided on the issue. Some courts applied the FSA's guidelines while others did not, leading to widely varying sentences for almost identical offenses.
As reported in the New York Times on June 30th, the Sentencing Commission clarified the situation by voting that the FSA's guidelines should be applied retroactively. The Commission determined that retroactive application of the FSA was the appropriate decision given the inherent unfairness of the previous guidelines. The decision affects approximately 12,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated for crack-related offenses. Those inmates can apply to a judge for a sentencing reduction. If approved, prisoners could see an average sentence reduction of around three years. The Sentencing Commission's decision is not final; Congress can overrule the Commission before the revised policy takes effect on November 1.