Congress this year reduced the requirement of long prison sentences for possession of crack cocaine, but a quirk in how the law was written has resulted in some defendants being sentenced under the old rules–and the situation could continue for years, the Wall Street Journal reports. Legislators who backed the change aren’t pleased with the outcome. The new guidelines were aimed at rectifying an injustice born during the drug wars of the 1980s. Now, there is a parallel universe where defendants face different rules for the same crimes–sometimes in front of the same judge–because their offenses were committed at different times.
The cause of the problem: Congress didn’t say whether the law should apply to crimes committed before Aug. 3, when it was signed into law. Penalties for any repealed law remain in place for acts committed under that statute, unless lawmakers “expressly” establish otherwise, according to a federal statute. Because prosecutors have a five-year statute of limitations to file charges for most federal crimes, people accused of committing crack-related offenses before the revision are subject to the old rules. The Justice Department says prosecutors are required to seek the previous law’s penalties for crimes committed before the changes were enacted. About 5,700 defendants are sentenced each year for crack violations. House crime subcommittee chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced a bill Friday to make the law retroactive, but Congress is about to adjourn for the year.