Brian T. Yeh
Pursuant to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress established basic sentencing levels for crack cocaine offenses. Congress amended 21 U.S.C. § 841 to provide for a 100:1 ratio in the quantities of powder cocaine and crack cocaine that trigger a mandatory minimum penalty. As amended, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) required a mandatory minimum 10-year term of imprisonment and a maximum life term of imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving 5 kilograms of cocaine or 50 grams of cocaine base. In addition, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) established a mandatory 5-year term of imprisonment for offenses involving 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of cocaine base. 21 U.S.C. § 844(a) called for a 5-year mandatory minimum punishment for simple possession of crack cocaine. Although the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 revises these penalties (as discussed below), there still remains a disparity in the threshold amount of powder cocaine and crack cocaine that triggers the mandatory minimums in 21 U.S.C. § 841.
Federal sentencing guidelines (the Guidelines) established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission reflect the statutory differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenders. Until 2005, the Guidelines were binding on federal courts: the judge had discretion to sentence a defendant, but only within the narrow sentencing range that the Guidelines provided. In its 2005 opinion United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court declared that the Guidelines must be considered advisory rather than mandatory, in order to comply with the Constitution. Instead of being bound by the Guidelines, sentencing courts must treat the federal guidelines as just one of a number of sentencing factors (which include the need to avoid undue sentencing disparity).
In the aftermath of Booker, some judges, who did not believe that crack cocaine is 100 times worse than powder cocaine, imposed lower sentences on crack cocaine offenders than the ones recommended by the Guidelines. In 2007, the Supreme Court in Kimbrough v. United States upheld this practice, ruling that a court may impose a below-the-Guidelines sentence based on its conclusion that the 100:1 ratio is greater than necessary or may foster unwarranted disparity.
Also in 2007, the Sentencing Commission revised the Guidelines by lowering the base offense level for crack cocaine offenses by two levels, thereby eliminating the 100:1 ratio for future sentencing guideline purposes (except at the point at which the statutory mandatory minimums are triggered). In addition, the Sentencing Commission decided to make these amendments retroactively applicable, thus allowing eligible crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced prior to November 1, 2007, to petition a federal judge to reduce their sentences. On June 17, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Dillon v. United States, in which it held that Booker does not apply in a sentence modification proceeding that is based on the retroactive crack cocaine amendment to the Guidelines; thus, district courts do not have the authority to further reduce a crack cocaine offender's sentence in such proceedings below the retroactive, amended Guidelines range.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (S. 1789) changes the statutory 100:1 ratio in crack/powder cocaine quantities that trigger the mandatory minimum penalties under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1). President Obama signed the bill into law on August 3, 2010 (P.L. 111-220). S. 1789 reduces the statutory 100:1 ratio to 18:1, by increasing the threshold amount of crack cocaine to 28 grams (for the 5-year sentence) and 280 grams (for the 10-year sentence). S. 1789 also eliminates the 5-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine. Other bills introduced in the 111th Congress would completely eliminate the statutory disparity in cocaine sentencing, including H.R. 18, H.R. 265, H.R. 1459, H.R. 2178, and H.R. 3245. Another bill, H.R. 1466, would repeal all statutory mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
Date of Report: August 5, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL33318
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Sunday, August 22, 2010
Brian T. Yeh