High Court gives crack defendants a break

June 21, 2012 at 12:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that all criminals sentenced after the new guidelines on crack cocaine came into effect were covered by the new rules.

That applies even if they were arrested while the old harsher sentencing guidelines were in effect.

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the five- and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms for federal drug crimes reflected a 100-to-1 disparity between the amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger the minimums.

Under that guideline, the five-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine, but 500 grams of powder; and the 10-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams of crack but 5,000 grams of powder

The Fair Sentencing Act, which took effect Aug. 3, 2010, reduced the disparity to 18-to-1, lowering the mandatory minimums applicable to many crack offenders by increasing the amount of crack needed to trigger the five-year minimum from 5 to 28 grams and the amount for the 10-year minimum from 50 to 280 grams, while leaving the powder cocaine amounts intact.

The new amendments became effective on Nov. 1, 2010.

Two Chicago defendants convicted of crack distribution before the new guidelines took effect, but sentenced under the old guidelines even though the new rules had gone into effect, filed suit. A federal appeals court upheld the sentences.

But in the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court majority said Congress appeared to make the new rules applicable to anyone sentenced after they were implemented, even if defendants were convicted under the old regime.

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices to make up the majority. The four other conservatives dissented.

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