WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people who committed crack cocaine crimes before more lenient penalties took effect and received their prison sentence afterward should benefit from the new rules.
The court resolved a dispute in favor of Corey A. Hill and Edward Dorsey, who were arrested in 2007 and 2008 for selling crack cocaine and faced mandatory 10-year sentences in Illinois. But they weren’t sentenced until after the Fair Sentencing Act went in to effect in August 2010. That law reduces the difference between sentences for crimes committed by crack cocaine and powder cocaine users.
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Justice Stephen Breyer said in a 5-4 decision that the courts should have used the new law to sentence the two men.
Breyer said the issue was difficult because the new law doesn’t spell out how to treat people in circumstances like Hill’s and Dorsey’s, and a 19th century law says the old law applies in such cases.
But Breyer said following the old law would result in greater disproportionality in sentencing. “Finally, we can find no convincing reason why Congress would have wanted these unfair consequences,” Breyer said.
Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.
Scalia said the 1871 law “dictates that the new, more lenient mandatory minimum provisions do not apply to such pre-enactment offenders.”
Civil rights groups and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the decision as another step toward reducing sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine crimes, a gap that has struck African Americans especially hard.
The cases are Dorsey v. U.S., 11-5683, and Hill v. U.S., 11-5721.