Federal appeals court rules new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines not retroactive

Federal appeals court rules new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines not retroactive

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[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] Thursday rejected [opinion, PDF] a prisoner’s attempt to have new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines applied retroactively to reduce his sentence. The three-judge panel found that it could not infer congressional intent to apply the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials] to prisoners already convicted and serving the prior mandatory minimum. The Fair Sentencing Act amended existing law to reduce the current sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 18:1 to make it more in line with the penalties for powder cocaine. Lyndon Marlon Baptist, a.k.a. L-Dog, was convicted for facilitating a sale of 14 grams of crack cocaine between his cousin and an informant. The district court judge sentenced him to the mandatory minimum of five years in prison, saying the punishment was disproportionate to the crime and morally wrong. The Ninth Circuit said that the emergency powers Congress granted to the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] to implement the new law did not mean it was supposed to apply retroactively. Nor could such intent be inferred from a letter [text, PDF] sent by the sponsors of the law to US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] asking him to apply the law’s “modified mandatory minimums to all defendants who have not yet been sentenced, including those whose conduct predates the legislation’s enactment.” The court said the letter in effect conceded that it was not supposed to apply to those already serving sentences. Further, Baptist’s constitutional claims of cruel and unusual punishment and an equal protection violation were rejected as such claims consistently have been by the courts. Thus, the court said it was compelled to find the Fair Sentencing Act’s lower sentences could not apply retroactively. But the judges expressed their reluctance in their holding:

As individual judges, we believe that the result that we reach in this case—affirming a sentence of sixty months’ imprisonment for a minor drug offense under a law that Congress appears to have concluded was groundless and racially discriminatory—subverts justice and erodes the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. We are without power, however, to undo the injustice that we are compelled to authorize when we affirm the congressionally mandated sentence that the district judge understandably declared made his “stomach hurt[ ]” because it was “disproportionate [with respect to] African Americans” and “wrong from a moral sense.”

All the circuit courts that have heard such challenges have held that the Fair Sentencing Act is not meant to apply retroactively.

Earlier this week, Holder testified before the USSC urging them to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively [JURIST report]. He argued “there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders.” The USSC is considering retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act ,which was signed into law [JURIST report] by President Barack Obama last year. Under the existing law passed in 1986, an individual possessing five grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory five-year prison sentence, while an individual possessing powder cocaine would need to have 100 times that amount to receive the same sentence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] praised [press release] the bill’s passage, stating that the old law also created a racial disparity, with African Americans comprising 79.8 percent of all offenders sentenced for crack cocaine violations. In April 2008, a study released by the USSC 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 [materials]. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties.