NAACP Legal Defense Fund criticizes Sixth Circuit’s bar on rolling back crack sentences
3:59 pm, December 5th, 2013
On Dec. 3, a divided Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, which reduced the former sentencing ratio between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, does not apply to inmates imprisoned under the former minimum sentences mandated by an earlier, harsher law.
The opinion involves two cousins, Cornelius Blewett and Jarreous Blewett, who were convicted in 2005 for possessing, respectively, 19.6 and 26.9, grams of crack with the intent to distribute. Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, each would have been sentenced to five years, according to the opinion, but because they both had prior felony drug convictions, their sentences were doubles to 10 years.
After the passage of the 2009 law, which set a new mandatory minimum of 28 grams, the cousins moved for a sentence reduction, arguing that “even though they were sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act took effect, they should benefit from Congress’ reduction of the statutory penalties.”
The district court denied their motion, and the Blewetts appealed.
Writing for the 10-judge majority, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton said the issue for the court was “whether the changes created by the Act at issue apply to defendants sentenced five years before the new law took effect. Consistent with a 142-year-old congressional presumption against applying reductions in criminal penalties to those already sentenced,” as well as with U. Supreme Court precedent and “the decisions of every other court of appeals in the country, and consistent with dozens of our own decisions, we hold that the Act does not retroactively undo final sentences.”
Five of the seven dissenting judges authored separate opinions, in which their fellow dissenters joined.
In his dissent Judge R. Guy Cole wrote, “Congress repealed the law because the ratio is unjustified, with the full awareness of its discriminatory effects. Using the ratio to deny sentence modifications continues to treat African-American offenders more harshly than White offenders, despite Congress’s aim to the contrary.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund., which submitted an amicus brief supporting the Blewetts’ appeal, lamented the decision.
“We are deeply disappointed in the outcome of this case,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the fund’s president and director-counsel. “Thousands of people, the majority of whom are African-American, are still serving time under an unfair drug sentencing regime that has destroyed individuals, families and communities. Today’s decision demonstrates that those who are working to eliminate the impermissible role of race in criminal prosecutions and sentences still have much more work to do.”