In a 5-4 decision (PDF) on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that reduced sentences for crack cocaine, approved by Congress in 2010, must be applied to individuals with pending legal cases at the time of its passage if they had not yet been sentenced.

The nation's top judges took up the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) after two Chicago men were given mandatory minimum sentences as required by Congress in the 1980s, when a crack "epidemic" was sweeping the nation. Then, Congress set the sentence for simple possession of a single gram of crack to a minimum of five years, whereas someone found with less than 100 grams of powder cocaine wouldn't face nearly the same sentence.

Due to the popularity of crack in low-income, urban communities, the harsh sentencing laws saw a wildly inordinate number of African-Americans jailed for much longer than white offenders caught with the more expensive powder cocaine. Crack and cocaine are the same drug in different forms, but crack is thought to be more addictive because it is commonly smoked, rather than snorted, producing a stronger and faster high.

Congress finally recognized this disparity and passed the FSA with bipartisan support in August 2010. The new law adjusted the sentencing rules to bring crack and cocaine penalties in line with each other, setting a mandatory minimum sentence of five years at 28 grams of crack, instead of one.

Just one month after that measure was signed into law, the two Chicago men -- Corey Hill and Edward Dorsey -- were both given mandatory minimum sentences in line with the Reagan-era penalties. Judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with those sentences, too, noting that the men had both committed their crimes before the FSA was signed by President Barack Obama, and because it was not clear whether the FSA should be applied to cases pending at that time.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision on Thursday, however, after Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with Sotomayor, Kagan, Breyer and Ginsburg to overcome the conservative justices in a split decision.


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