Results Are In on Fair Sentencing Act

January 2, 2013

In today's world, where approval ratings of Congress are alarmingly low, we grow less and less hopeful that our government can effectively function. Every now and then, however, we see a glimmer of light that offers some positive indication of a job well done. The United States Sentencing Commission recently published a data report on the results of Congress' Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The data is interesting.

Recall that Congress initially created in 1986 a widely disparate 100:1 sentencing structure between crack and powder cocaine on the view that crack was a more dangerous and harmful drug. In decades after, extensive research by the United States Sentencing Commission and other experts debunked Congress' initial theory by finding that the differences between the effects of the two drugs were grossly exaggerated. Research conclusively proved that the sentencing disparity was unwarranted and effectively created an unconstitutionally discriminate sentencing scheme. Simply put, the data proved there was no reasonable basis to punish one man more harshly than another for the same type of conduct.

After more than fifteen years of attempted legislation to fix the wrong, Congress ultimately passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Act brought fairness and equality into our sentencing structure by increasing the quantities of crack cocaine that trigger the five and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences, and eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. The Act was signed into law by President Obama on August 3, 2010, and later retroactively implemented by the Sentencing Commission through sentencing guideline amendment.

The data report recently published by the Commission sets out in detail how the 2010 Act impacted previously-sentenced defendants. It breaks down statistics by state, federal judicial circuit, divisions within each circuit, year of original sentence, criminal history categories, demographics by race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender and age, as well as other categories. In sum, nearly 6,600 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their sentences as a result of retroactive, new guidelines. Corroborating the suspicion that the previous sentencing structure was largely discriminatory, more than 85% of those entitled to a reduction were black persons.

The report is available at the Sentencing Commission's web site. Though the report is filled with numbers and percentages that are lifeless to some, there is no denying that the data proves the Act had a tangible effect on the lives of real humans. Well over 6,000 families would have remained split for years but for Congress checking itself. It is refreshing to me that our government is still humble enough to take another look at what it has done in order to bring fairness into our laws.