For politicos, these next few days are crucial. The Supreme Court is handing down decisions like candy from a piñata. The country is waiting with bated breath while the court finalizes its deliberations on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but the court has months of cases that are awaiting closure. One such case involves felons who have been convicted for crack offenses, as opposed to lighter cocaine offenses.
In a five to four ruling, with Justice Kennedy joining the liberals on the bench, the court ruled that people convicted under crack cocaine laws must have their sentences reduced to reflect the fact that sentencing guidelines were changed under the Obama administration.
For decades, crack cocaine carried stricter sentencing laws, which heavily impacted poor and African-American communities. Users of crack’s more expensive cousin, rock cocaine, received far easier sentences. Crack and rock cocaine are the exact same drug, but crack is cheaper, often less pure and smoked, which makes it more addictive than rock cocaine, which is typically snorted. Rock cocaine is also a stereotypically white-collar drug, while crack cocaine is stereotypically used in poorer urban neighborhoods. Obviously, stereotypes are just that, but the sentencing disparity resulted in far more African Americans being convicted with longer sentences than their white, rock cocaine counterparts. A person convicted of the intent to distribute five grams of crack cocaine received the same sentence as a person convicted with the intent to distribute 100 times that amount, 500 grams.
In 2010, President Obama signed legislation called the Fair Sentencing Act, “which reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. It also increases monetary penalties for major drug traffickers.” The disparity was reduced from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1.
In April of this year, the court heard Dorsey v. United States. In 2007, before the Fair Sentencing Act, two men, Corey Hill and Edward Dorsey, were caught selling crack cocaine. The men were not sentenced until 2010, after the law was signed, but the judge sentenced them under the old guidelines since the crime happened before the law took effect. Both Hill and Dorsey were given mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years.
The men sued. A lower court ruled that the sentencing should be upheld because both men had prior drug convictions. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion:
But Breyer said following the old law would result in greater disproportionality in sentencing. “Finally, we can find no convincing reason why Congress would have wanted these unfair consequences,” Breyer said.
With the exception of Justice Anthony Kennedy (the usual swing vote), the decision was straight down ideological lines. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor joined Justice Breyer in the majority opinion, while the dissenters were Chief Justice Roberts along with Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.
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