Retroactivity and Crack Sentencing Reform
45 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2013 Last revised: 9 May 2013
Date Written: April 26, 2013
This article argues that the strong presumption against retroactive application of reduced punishments articulated in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dorsey v. United States is neither historically grounded nor constitutionally compelled. Although not dispositive in Dorsey, the presumption may prove pernicious in future cases, whether in dealing with marijuana decriminalization or lessened punishment for file sharing, and in no way should signal to Congress that future changes should apply prospectively only.
Although the Court reached the right result in applying the reduction in punishment for crack offenses to offenders whose sentences had not been finalized, the Court inordinately relied on the general savings statute enacted in 1871. Congress enacted that statute not to prevent retroactive decriminalization or diminution in punishment, but to avoid the consequence of abatement of pending prosecutions and penalties that, at common law, followed from alteration of a criminal statute. Congress wished to avoid the bizarre consequence of offenders walking free merely because Congress recodified a law or even increased the punishment for an offense without specifying that prosecutions could continue under the former enactment. In today’s world, the savings statute should be understood more as a default in the face of congressional silence – once it is clear that Congress considered the temporal scope of its action, the presumption disappears.
I next consider whether alternative justifications support a strong presumption for prospective application of any legislative change. I initially turn to the well entrenched norm against retroactive lawmaking. I reject the premise that the conventional reasons against retroactive measures have salience in the context of legislative amelioration of punishment. I then assess two separation of powers concerns that might justify a clear statement rule against retroactive application of congressional leniency. First, I ask whether Congress’s reduction of sentences would interfere with the President’s pardon authority under Article II, and second, whether Congress lacks the power to undo a final decision of the judiciary. The constitutional arguments raise no serious barrier to retroactive application of congressional leniency.
On the other hand, I reject the notion that Congress, in light of equal protection principles, must benefit those who previously committed the offense. To be sure, ignoring the plight of prior offenders at times seems grossly unfair, and Congress from a deterrence perspective lacks any justifiable reason to treat similarly situated offenders so disparately. Nonetheless, I argue that Congress under a retribution rationale can justify the differential punishment scheme and survive equal protection scrutiny.
In short, because there are no compelling policy or constitutional grounds to presume that congressional leniency should apply prospectively only, Congress should be accorded the discretion to determine where to draw the line in determining the proper amount of retribution for those who committed offenses prior to the decriminalization or diminution in punishment. The Court’s decision in Dorsey should have been straightforward – given the directive in the sentencing act to rectify the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine offenses as quickly as possible, Congress intended the shortened sentences to apply to all pending cases.
Keywords: retroactivity, crack, cocaine, drugs, sentencing, Dorsey v. United States, Supreme Court, presumption, punishment, reduction, retribution, decriminalization
JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation