Crack Cocaine Mandatory Minimum Sentences

In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed historic, bipartisan legislation repealing a mandatory minimum sentence for the first time since the Nixon Administration and reforming the infamous 100-to-one ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. FAMM supported that reform, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). Prior to the enactment of the FSA, it took 100 times as much crack cocaine as powder cocaine to receive the same five-, 10-, or 20-year mandatory minimum prison term. The FSA changed this so-called “100-to-one” disparity to a disparity of 18-to-one. The law also abolished a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.  The law produces fairer sentences for approximately 3,000 federal crack offenders each year. 

In response to the reform, the U.S. Sentencing Commission altered the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines to reflect the new 18-to-one ratio, and it made these guideline changes retroactive. More than 7,700 federal prisoners received sentence reductions based on the retroactive changes to the crack guidelines.

The Problem: The FSA was a compromise measure that did not correct all the injustices of the crack-powder disparity.  The FSA’s alterations to crack mandatory minimum sentences were not made retroactive – something only Congress can do, by passing legislation.  This has left thousands of federal crack cocaine offenders in prison today serving mandatory minimum terms that Congress, the President, and the country have now repudiated as unfair and racially discriminatory.  Additionally, the FSA’s 18-to-one ratio does not reflect the fact that crack and powder cocaine are the same drug in different forms, and that crack cocaine crimes are still punished more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. 

Solutions:

  1. Make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, so that it applies to all federal prisoners still serving mandatory minimum sentences under the old, 100-to-1 ratio
  2. Reform the crack-powder cocaine mandatory minimum sentences to reflect a ratio of 1-to-1, rather than 18-to-1.

There have been numerous efforts in Congress to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive and to eliminate the 18-to-1 disparity. In the 113th Congress, the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, if passed, would have made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively applicable to more than 8,800 prisoners, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Two other House bills introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) in 2013 would have, if passed, made the FSA retroactive and eliminated any disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. None of these bills became law, but FAMM supports these reforms and hopes that they will be reintroduced and passed in Congress in the future. 


Pending Bills in the 114th Congress: 

There are no crack cocaine sentencing reform bills yet introduced in the current Congress. Keep checking here for updates as bills are introduced. 

Resources:

Factsheet: A brief history of crack cocaine sentencing laws

FAQ: The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 

FAQ: The 2011 retroactive FSA crack guideline changes

Analysis: How Many People Benefited from the 2011 Retroactive FSA Crack Guideline Changes

Recidivism Study: What Happened to Those Who Received Crack Sentence Reductions Based on the 2007 Retroactive Crack Guideline Changes

Chart: Mandatory minimum drug sentences, 21 U.S.C. § 841