Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Crack Sentences Still Tough

That's the headline of this Wall Street Journal article from the tireless Gary Fields, who uses several cases to show how failing to make the Fair Sentencing Act's crack sentencing reforms retroactive is leading to different sentences for similar crimes -- just because those crimes occurred on different dates:

The Fair Sentencing Act passed this summer knocked down the requirement of long prison sentences for possession of crack cocaine, but a quirk in how the law was written has resulted in some defendants being sentenced under the old rules—and the situation could continue for years.
Lawmakers who backed the change, with the support of the attorney general and federal sentencing officials, aren't pleased with the outcome. They said the new guidelines rectified an injustice born during the drug wars of the 1980s. Instead, the snafu has created a parallel universe where defendants face different rules for the same crimes—sometimes in front of the same judge—because their offenses were committed at different times.
The cause of the problem: Congress didn't say whether the Act should apply to crimes committed before Aug. 3, when it was signed into law. Penalties for any repealed law remain in place for acts committed under that statute, unless lawmakers "expressly" establish otherwise, according to a federal statute.
And because prosecutors have a five-year statute of limitations to file charges for most federal crimes, people accused of committing crack-related offenses before the revision are subject to the old rules. ...
Early next year, in Bridgeport, Conn., Steven Singh, 32, and Marvin Conner, 32, will face the same five-year minimum sentence on the same day, before the same judge, for two drug crimes of different magnitude. Both pleaded guilty in October, Mr. Singh to possession with intent to distribute 15.8 grams of crack cocaine and Mr. Conner for intent to distribute 39 grams. Mr. Singh's offense occurred in Feb. 2009, putting him under the old law, which doubled his likely sentence. Mr. Connor's offense occurred at least partially after Aug. 3.
In Maine, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby recently broke from the pattern, ruling in October that he would sentence William Douglas under the new law for an older crime. Mr. Douglas was convicted of possessing 113 grams of crack. Under the old rules he faced 10 years in prison.
In his ruling, Judge Hornby rejected the argument that the harsher law should be imposed, saying, "Congress stated its goal was to restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing. But what possible reason could there be to want judges to continue to impose sentences that are not fair over the next five years while the statute of limitations run?"