The Fair Sentencing Act: Resolving the Sentencing Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine

Cocaine is an illicit drug that is classified as a “Schedule 1” substance under United States drug sentencing guidelines. Usually, cocaine appears in a powdered form that can be snorted, injected, swallowed or applied topically to skin. This drug is derived from the coca plant that grows naturally in some Central and South American countries.

Although the coca plant has been used for thousands of years as a mild herbal stimulant, the powdered form of cocaine is much more pure and powerful, with a high potential for addiction. Another form of this drug is known as crack cocaine. Typically, this form of the drug is cheaper to manufacture, very powerful and highly addictive.

For many years, the legal penalties for crack cocaine possession, manufacture or distribution were disproportionately higher than the drug possession penalties for powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act was introduced in an effort to eliminate this disparity.

What is the Fair Sentencing Act?

The United States Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. This was done in an effort to reduce the vast difference in legal penalties and sentences between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the ratio of sentence severity between crack and powder cocaine was 100:1.

This meant that sentences for crack cocaine offenses were vastly more severe than the sentences for powder cocaine offenses. Even though these substances are made from the same source, the punishments for possession of crack were much more severe than for possession of an identical amount of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the ratio of punishment disparity between the two drugs from 100:1 to 18:1.

Why Was It Necessary?

There were several reasons that Congress felt were important enough to pass this act. Some of them were:

  • Racial disparity: A large majority of people arrested for crack cocaine offenses are African American. The 100:1 sentencing ratio meant that vastly more African Americans received lengthy sentences compared to whites arrested for similar crimes.
  • Sentencing disparity: The 100:1 sentencing ratio meant that anyone arrested for non-violent drug offenses involving crack cocaine could serve as much or more time in prison than people charged with violent crimes.

Since its passage, the Fair Sentencing Act has achieved significant progress in ensuring a greater sense of fairness in the justice system. In 2011, the US Sentencing Commission passed a decision to apply the new sentencing guidelines retroactively, meaning that over 12,000 people became eligible to have their cases reviewed for a possibility of a reduced sentence.

To learn more about cocaine charges or other drug crimes, talk to The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp at 713-868-6100.