Potential Savings From Applying The Crack Cocaine Fair Sentencing Act

by Brian Chu

This project was completed as part of CUNY IS608's curriculum. To see other projects, please click here for the homepage.

Signed into Congress on August 3, 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) intended to reduce the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenders. Previously, a person found with 5 grams of crack cocaine would be subject to a mandatory five-year minimum sentence whereas a powder cocaine holder required 500 grams to receive the same penalty. Critics of this harsh imbalance also pointed to racial biases as the vast majority of crack cocaine users in the United States are African-Americans (83% in 20131). The FSA reduced the 100:1 ratio to 18:1 and eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time possession of crack cocaine.

Retroactive application of the FSA was voted into the guideline changes effective November 1, 2011. This amendment allows for eligible offenders currently imprisoned to seek a sentence reduction based on the new FSA regulations.2 Not all defendants, however, are eligible for FSA retroactivity and none are automatically applied without a judge's hearing. Nevertheless, there remains a backlog of convicted crack cocaine offenders still serving sentences under the old structure, leading to unjustified imprisonments and a burden on the United States prison system.

Mapping the Prison Cost Impact of Retroactive Application

The United States prison population is approximately 2.3 million, nearly a quarter of the world's 10 million overall total.3 Moreover, incarceration rates in the United States have risen over 700% since the 1970s and exact an extremely large financial burden on taxpayers. The Vera Institute of Justice reports that in 2011, the taxpayer burden was $39 billion and exceeded combined state correctional budgets by 14%.4 The mean annual taxpayer cost per inmate was calculated around $30,000, ranging from $14,000 in Kentucky to $60,000 in New York.

Combining these estimated rates with the thousands of crack cocaine offenders serving sentences, the annual incarceration cost is considerable. Retroactive application of the FSA could, therefore, have a significant impact on prison cost savings and particularly for taxpayers. Using preliminary data compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), over 6,000 offenders (through 2013) have been granted retroactive sentence reductions at an average of 25 months reduction per case.5 Based on this amount, over $450 million of taxpayer savings may have already been realized as a result of FSA retroactivity.

The following map provides state-specific details on retroactive FSA applications granted and denied, average inmate costs and sentence reductions, and projected prison cost savings based on the Vera Institute and USSC reports. The data can be filtered by state based on the proportion of FSA applications denied. The map also allows for a sensitivity analysis to estimate potential new savings should some increased percentage of those currently denied be granted retroactive FSA application at the average state reduction rate.

Filter by percent of offenders denied retroactive sentence reduction:
All states    States over 25% denied    States over 50% denied    States over % denied

Increase in sentence reduction grants6 [+5% steps]:



Estimated Total Savings

Total Granted Reductions7

Total Denied Reductions8

Average Annual Cost per Inmate9

Average Sentence Reduction

Sensitivity Analysis10

Additional Granted Reductions

Estimated Additional Savings

Sources and Notes

(1) U.S. Sentencing Commission: 2013 Datafile, USSCFY13
(2) U.S. Sentencing Commission: Most Frequently Asked Questions The 2011 Retroactive Crack Cocaine Guideline Amendment
(3) Bureau of Justice Statistics: Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases 1991-2012
(4) Vera Institute of Justice: The Price of Prisons (July 2012)
(5) U.S. Sentencing Commission, Preliminary Crack Retroactivity Data Report Fair Sentencing Act (January 2014)
(6) Some offenders may be ineligible for a reduced sentence or be bound by minimum sentence regulations. 100% retroactivity, therefore, is likely unreasonable. Also see footnote 2 above.
(7) Data through 2013. 7,496 offenders were granted reduction but 824 cases could not determine imprisonment time, 36 could not be matched, and 182 in Guam, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands were not included here.
(8) Data through 2013. Some districts may not have reported all denials of motions seeking application of the retroactive crack cocaine amendment. Also, some denied contested motions have not yet been decided by the court.
(9) Annual inmate cost estimates were not calculated for Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia. For these states, the mean amount of $30,096 from
     the remaining states was used for this analysis.
(10) The sensitivity analysis done here is solely on the proportion granted or denied retroactive FSA. Additional sensitivity analyses on the average inmate cost and length of sentence reduction would be reasonable complements to this piece.