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Drug Crimes Sentences before U.S. Supreme Court

In the 1980s, tough penalties were put in place for those who were convicted of drug crimes. Crack and powder cocaine started to become more common in major cities like Philadelphia, and Congress reacted by creating lengthy prison sentences for those who were convicted.

When drug sentences were initially put in place, those convicted of crack cocaine drug crimes received substantially more prison time than those who had powder cocaine offenses.

In most federal drug cases, the court will be bound to sentencing guidelines when a conviction is reached. The amount of the drugs present in the case will impact the potential sentence. The ratio in place basically amounted to 100 to 1 - meaning that crack was considered so dangerous that a person would have to have 100 times as much powder cocaine to receive a similar sentence when convicted.

This huge differential caused Congress to revisit the sentencing issue. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed. This act was designed to make the sentences for crack cocaine drug crimes similar to powder cocaine convictions, bringing levels down to 18 to 1. Those who received sentences after the act was passed would be under the new ratios.

However, the law did not cover what would happen to those convicted but still awaiting sentencing under the old sentencing guideline. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering what should happen to those individuals, because Congress did not specifically address those awaiting sentencing.

Because of this gap in the language, there is some question over which standards will prevail. As this case progresses, many are watching closely to see what other changes may result. This could also have major implications on those sentenced under old laws, as it may lead to further revisions in the penalties in place for drug crimes.

Source: New York Times "Court Weighs Revisions in Cocaine-Case Sentences" Adam Liptak, April 17, 2012.

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Gregory R. Gifford
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