A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that a 2010 law mandating less-stringent penalties on drug-related offenses can be retroactively applied to jail sentences involving crack cocaine.

The Associated Press reported that the decision by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals clears the way for thousands of inmates convicted before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to petition for less jail time.

"The federal judicial perpetuation of the racially discriminatory mandatory minimum crack sentences for those defendants sentenced under the old crack sentencing law, as the government advocates, would violate the Equal Protection Clause," Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote in the court's majority opinion. (PDF)

The law lowered the disparity between sentences involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to about 18-to-1. More than 80 percent of the 30,000 inmates in federal prisons on crack-related charges were black as recently as 2011. Before the law was signed into effect, black inmates also made up the majority of the 4,000 prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for crack possession or distribution.

"This decision could make a real difference in the lives of men and women currently serving needlessly cruel and very long mandatory minimum sentences for what are often low-level, non-violent drug offenses," Laura W. Murphy, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, said in a statement.

[Image: "Circa 2002 - Inmate At Barbed Wire Fence, Dade County Men's Correctional Facility, Florida" spirit of america / Shutterstock.com]