On May 17, 2013 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the crack cocaine sentencing changes must be applied to all federal prisoners sentenced prior to the 2010 law. The court’s ruling in US v Blewett could have reopened the door to resentencing for thousands of federal prisoners.
In Blewett, the court ruled the rationale expressed in the Fair Sentencing Act should apply to all crack cocaine users. The defendants in Blewett had asked for relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 which permits resentencing when the Sentencing Commission lowers a guideline and that modification is designated as retroactively applicable.
The defendants were denied in the district court and appealed.
When former-President Obama commuted the sentences in 2013, of eight long-serving federal inmates, he earned a rare moment of bipartisan acclamation.
The eight were originally sentenced for crack cocaine which effected the severe penalties created by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The old formula meant that possession of a quantity of crack was punished with the same sentence as possession of 100 times that amount of powdered cocaine.
In pardoning the eight, Obama said the penalties are “now recognized as unjust.”
There were ghosts at the celebration. Thousands of federal inmates continue to serve, and are still serving, time under intentnesses which would not have been handed out under the new law. The racial disparate impact of the old law made reforming the law a civil rights priority.
The inmates are still locked up under the previous law as the courts have turned their backs on the question of retroactivity.
A federal appellate panel went further though and found the lack of retroactivity not just irrational but unconstitutional.
In a 2-1 ruling in U.S. v Blewett, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that since the “discriminatory character of prior crack sentencing is no longer a topic of legitimate debate,” denying retroactive effect to the current law would “perpetuate demonstration racial discrimination.”
The Obama administration acted within days and asked the full Sixth Circuit to overturn the panel’s decision.
Pointing to a Supreme Court precedent which said only deliberate discrimination’ and not just a “foreseeable discriminatory effect,” infringes on the individuals’ constitutional guarantees.
Every appeals court has ruled against retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act. The Supreme Court is not apt to intervene.