SCOTUS Says 'Pipeline' Crack Defendants Should Benefit From Shorter Sentences


Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the less severe crack cocaine penalties approved by Congress in 2010 should be applied to defendants who committed their crimes before the legislation took effect but were sentenced afterward. The Fair Sentencing Act, which took effect on August 3, 2010, shrank the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, which until then had treated the former as if it were 100 times worse than the latter, even though the active ingredient is the same in both forms of the drug. Under the new sentencing scheme, one gram of crack is equivalent to 18 grams of powder rather than 100, so that, for example, 28 grams of crack (rather than five) triggers the same five-year mandatory minimums as 500 grams of cocaine powder. Although the sentencing reforms were not retroactive, it seemed odd to continue imposing sentences that Congress had declared unjust. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer observed that doing so "would create disparities of a kind that Congress enacted the [sentencing reforms] to prevent." Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, welcomed the ruling:

We are thrilled with the Court's decision. We considered it patently unjust to make these pipeline defendants serve longer sentences under a scheme that was completely repudiated by Congress.  As the Court found, doing so would have flouted the will of Congress, which called on the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lower crack cocaine sentences "as soon as practicable" after the FSA was signed into law. Especially exciting is the fact that Justice Breyer's opinion for the majority recognized that people who were sentenced after August 3, 2010 to an old law sentence are eligible to seek relief in federal courts.

Damon Root noted the oral arguments in this case last April. Previous coverage of crack sentences here.

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  1. Is that what Crack really looks like? Looks like Candied Ginger (Yum) to me.

    1. It tastes like a burning tire. Not very yummy.

  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18554246

    Syria just shot down a Turkish F4. Turkey is a member of Nato. Looks like the Big BO just got his justification to intervene.

    1. Now, John, you know we don't take military action against anti-American regimes. Assad is perfectly safe from us, and everybody knows it.

      1. You will if it makes Susan Power feel better about her role in letting the Serbs murder Bosnians.

    2. I don't agree; it appears that the Turkish government is not going to invoke the mutual defense provisions as the government is implying that the incident was 'accidental'.

      My impression form a distance is that most Turks are really fed up with U.S. interventionism in the Middle-east, and are loath to ask for the U.S. to do anything.

      The military is by policy much more pro-American, and could, as in the past, act without popular support. however, they are not the kingmakers they were through the 80's.

      I think the one thing the Turkish government wants on its southern border is stability. I expect that they are going to try to bank the flames of war not stoke them.

      1. I think the one thing the Turkish government wants on its southern border is stability

        Indeed, there are about 2 million Kurds resident in Syria, most of them live on the Turkish-Syrian border.

  3. "Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented."

    This reaffirms why I'm not a conservative.

    1. but God's conservative.

      why do you hate God?

    2. I don't know why Roberts and Scalia voted this way but I'm pretty sure Thomas was using his "it might be a bad law but it's not unconstitutional, Congress has the power to pass this law and if it needs to be changed, Congress needs to change it".

      I don't always agree with Thomas but on issues like this he's pretty consistent.

      In this case, which I understand to be about retroactively reducing sentences imposed under the old standards, I think it is within the Courts power to order those sentences reduced. So, I don't think he's right here.

    3. Read the dissent at supremecourt.gov. Congress (as it often does) either did an incomplete job *or* it intended that the new guidelines not be retroactive. The majority should have let Congress amend the law, rather than find an interpretation that fit their personal concept of fairness. Not discussed was the prohibition on passing ex post facto laws, which seem not to apply when reducing or eliminating criminal penalties (such as replacing death sentences with life sentences via statute).

  4. While I agree that 18-to-1 is infinitely better than 500-to-1 (okay, it's actually on ~28x better...) I still can't come up with any objective rationale for the sentencing disparity in the first place.

    1. SWB = smoking while black

    2. The reason was racism. Not "those evil whites" type racism, though. It was actually the "soft bigotry of low expectations" type of racism. The kind the democrats swear doesn't exist. For proof, check out the arguments that the black congressional congress was making in favor of a sentencing disparity in the 80's. And those fucks call black libertarians "race traitors". Buncha elitist dipshits.

      1. Yup. Back in the day Crack was something the CIA created to destroy black people. The CBC wanted those sentencing disparities to save their communities.

        1. Just remember though, it's the evil non-progressives who are promoting stereotypes.

    3. I still can't come up with any objective rationale for crack being illegal in the first place. Does it make any sense to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars incarcerating someone for a couple of hundred dollars worth of drugs?

      1. If you're looking for sense, the WoD is not the place.

    4. Let's see. It used to be treated as if it was 100x worse. Now they only treat it as if it was ~20x worse.

      That's like having a $100 fine for speeding on one road and then on an identical road ten feet away, it used to be $10,000 and now it's only $2,000. That's progress!

  5. The whole crack sentencing disparity is just one reason libertarians should stop being sqeamish for not supporting so-called civil rights legislation. There's no comparison between being unjustly sent to prison is a lot worse and being denied entry to a privately-owned restaurant.

  6. This is actually a tricky issue, jurisprudentially.

    It has to do with retroactive application of court decisions, to third parties. The argument here is one they've had before, about when a case should be considered final, whether final cases should be reopened, etc.

    If the court is just legislating, of course, then there are no grounds for applying its decisions retroactively. If, however, the court is merely explicating the law, then there is an implication that what the law they are explicating pre-exists their decision, and not only can, but should be applied retroactively.

    On the one hand, you have a societal interest in applying the (current) understanding of the law as widely as possible. On the other, you have societal interests in finality, predictability, reliance on the law as it was understood when you acted.

    These really are deep waters, although the issues mostly arise when the court is overturning a law.

    What the court did here was apply the rule it generally applies when it acts. That is, if the Court had overturned the crack mandatory minimums, you would expect it to do so only for defendants whose cases were not yet final. To apply this rule to a statute is novel, as far as I know.

  7. The conservative block was right. Ex post facto law gives one protection that they will be tried according to the laws that existed at the time of the crime, not the law as it changed afterwards. If the law became more strict, then I'm sure the liberal block would quote ex post facto laws. But one must be consistent.

  8. It's true. Coke is coke, whether you snort it, smoke it or inject it and yet it never made sense why those individuals who got caught selling crack got administered a decidedly harsher penalty than those who sold the powdered version that anyone with street nouse could cook down to freebase cocaine and smoke in a jiffy.

    You don't have to be a genius to appreciate that previous laws were racially inferred and to punish the 'big bad scary black man.'


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