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Federal appeals court rules crack cocaine offenders have right to resentencing hearing

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] on Friday ruled [opinion, PDF] that people convicted of crack cocaine offenses have a right to resentencing hearings under the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) [text, PDF; JURIST report]. The case was brought by two incarcerated defendants seeking retroactive relief from racially discriminatory, 10-year mandatory minimum sentences imposed on them in 2005. The ruling expands the FSA, which lessens penalties for possession and dealing, to people whose cases was concluded before the law was passed, potentially opening the door for thousands of inmates to request reduced prison time from federal judges. In the opinion, Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote:

[T]he law can and should be interpreted to replace the old, discriminatory mandatory minimums. Perpetuation of such racially discriminatory sentences by federal courts is unconstitutional and therefore the sentencing guidelines must be interpreted to eliminate such a result.
The court also found that the intentional maintenance of discriminatory sentences constitutes a denial of equal protection.

Friday's ruling expands upon a June 2012 US Supreme Court [official website] ruling [opinion, PDF] to expand the FSA [JURIST report] by applying the FSA to defendants who were sentenced after the act was in place, even if they were arrested before the act took effect. In Dorsey, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded: "[T]he FSA did not include any language to make it apply retroactively, but it not did explicitly deny such retroactivity either." In April 2008, a study released by the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] reported that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced [JURIST report] under an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties.

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