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Third Circuit applies new crack sentencing rules to old cases

Last year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act with the intent of reducing the sentencing disparity between crimes involving crack cocaine and crimes involving powder cocaine. In practice, this law reduced the sentences defendants face for crack crimes. However, the law left some open questions about how the law should be applied to people who were charged with federal drug crimes before the changes went into effect, but were sentenced after the changes went into effect.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which handles federal appeals coming from Pennsylvania, weighed in on the issue.

In the past, prosecutors had argued that people who committed their alleged crimes before the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect should be sentenced under the old guidelines and that the new guidelines should only apply to crimes that happened after the act went into effect. However, the growing consensus among courts and legal professionals is that the newer and fairer sentences should be applied retroactively.

In the case of United States v. Dixon, the 3rd Circuit joined that consensus. In United States v. Dixon, the defendant was accused of committing a crack-related crime before the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect. However, his sentencing happened after the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect.

At trial in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, federal prosecutors convinced the judge to apply the old sentencing guidelines. When the defendant was sentenced on drug and weapons charges, he received a sentence of 121 months on the drug charges and 120 months for the weapons charges. Had he been sentenced under the new guidelines, he would have faced a shorter sentence.

When the 3rd Circuit reviewed the case, the Court found that the trial judge made a mistake by applying the old standards. After all, the 3rd Circuit found, it would be absurd for Congress to pass a law that made sentences fairer, only to let unfair sentences be handed out for years to come.

Source: United States v. Dixon, 10-4300, (3d Cir. Aug. 9, 2011)

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