5 Years Later, Here Are 5 Ways the Fair Sentencing Act Changed the War on Drugs

Here’s what you need to know about the act on its fifth birthday.
President Barack Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. (Photo: Michael Reynolds/Getty Images)
Aug 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Presidential candidates, celebrities, and billionaires have recently been trumpeting the need for criminal justice reform in the U.S., but five years ago today—when the movement for reform had far fewer big-ticket proponents—President Barack Obama signed a landmark law to change drug sentencing laws. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the massive disparity between sentences handed down to crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenders, and in the years since its implementation, the number of federal prosecutions of crack cocaine offenders has been cut in half.

Even though crack and powder cocaine are by-products of the same drug, prior to the Fair Sentencing Act an individual caught with 5 grams of crack would face a 10-year sentence, while it would take 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence. Under the act, that gap was reduced from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1—meaning crack cocaine sentences are now 18 times harsher than powder cocaine sentences rather than 100 times.

Perhaps what was most harmful about the disparity was the way it perpetuated racial disparities in sentencing, landing more black Americans behind bars for crack possession. Driven by a rise in crack cocaine use in the 1980s—owing largely to its lower price—poor black communities were hardest hit by federal crack laws. In 2010, 79 percent of sentenced crack offenders were black, in spite of research that indicates two-thirds of all crack users were white or Hispanic.

Here are five things to know about the Fair Sentencing Act on its fifth birthday.

1. Crack cocaine use continued to drop after the law was passed.

Beginning in 2008, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health began observing a decline in the use of crack. In spite of the fears of some opponents of the Fair Sentencing Act, crack use has continued to wane since the act’s passage in 2010, the survey found. In 2010, 1 percent of the survey’s respondents had used crack cocaine; in 2013, 0.3 percent reported using crack.

2. Thousands of people are still serving long sentences in federal prisons for crack cocaine offenses.

Many offenders sentenced before 2010 haven’t gained relief from the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. In 2012, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion established that those who committed crimes before 2010 but were sentenced after the law passed were eligible to be resentenced. Advocates continue to push for retroactive application of the law, arguing that if Congress and the president agree the prior sentencing scheme was unfair, crack offenders should be able to have their cases revisited rather than languish in prison.

3. Since the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, half as many crack cocaine offenders have been sentenced.

The number of people sentenced for crack cocaine offenses has declined steeply since 2010, a report published Monday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found. While 4,730 people were sentenced for crack offenses in 2010, just 2,366 were sentenced in 2014.

4. Taxpayers would save hundreds of millions of dollars if the Fair Sentencing Act were made retroactive.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, a criminal justice reform bill that has yet to receive congressional approval, would allow 8,800 federal crack cocaine offenders—83 percent of whom are black—to have their cases revisited to seek sentences that align with the Fair Sentencing Act. Housing a federal inmate costs nearly $29,000 per year—a cost that would be cut if thousands of those inmates’ sentences were reduced.

5. President Obama’s clemency efforts have included numerous crack cocaine offenders.

In early July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners, most of whom were nonviolent drug offenders. He has commuted the sentences of nearly 90 prisoners, many of whom were crack offenders.