Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Cocaine Sentencing Cases

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week in two cases involving different sentencing rules for sellers of crack and powder cocaine. This issue is one of the greatest controversies in American criminal law, according to The New York Times.

While powder and crack cocaine are two forms of the same drug, until recently, a drug dealer who sold crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence as a dealer who sold 100 times as much powder cocaine, the article notes.

The Fair Sentencing Act, enacted in 2010, reduced the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, for people who committed their crimes after the law took effect. As a result, many defendants who are caught with small amounts of crack are no longer subject to mandatory prison sentences of five to 10 years.

The court this week heard arguments about whether the new sentencing guidelines also apply to those who committed crimes before the law took effect, but who were not sentenced until afterwards.

New laws generally do not apply retroactively, unless Congress specifically says they do. In this case, Congress only said the United States Sentencing Commission should act quickly to revise its discretionary sentencing guidelines to reflect the new rules.

In one case heard by the court, a man who pleaded guilty in June 2010 to possessing 5.5 grams of crack cocaine in 2008 with the intent to distribute it was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Under the new law, the mandatory sentence would not have been given for fewer than 28 grams, and the man probably would have received a sentence of three or four years.

In the second case, a man was convicted in 2009 of selling 53 grams of crack cocaine, and was sentenced under the old law in December 2010, after the new law had taken effect.

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