Cracking Down on Sentencing Disparities: The Federal Sentencing Act of 2010’s Impact on Cocaine Offenders

April 2019

Crack cocaine’s growth in the United States during the mid-1980s was accompanied by a suite of deterrence-driven criminal justice policies. One such policy was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA), The ADAA was the first federal criminal law to differentiate crack from other forms of cocaine and imposed a 100:1 sentencing ratio (Palamar, Davies, Ompad, Cleland & Weitzman, 2015). The ADAA’s general imposition of longer prison sentences for all cocaine offenders had a disparate and devastating impact on communities of color. By the 2000s, African Americans had served almost as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as Whites had for violent offenses (Vagins & McCurdy, 2006). The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) attempted to remedy such disparities by, among other things, lowering the sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. Using secondary data from the United States Sentencing Commission, this study examines the FSA’s impact on sentencing disparities of African American and White cocaine offenders. Results from difference-in-difference regression analyses indicate that the FSA not only lowered the average prison sentence length for all cocaine offenders but also report an average of a 7 to 11 months reduction in prison sentences for crack cocaine offenders. Additionally, results indicate that the reduced effect on sentence lengths was stronger for African American than White cocaine offenders. This study aims to supply policymakers with research about unjust disparities in sentencing.