ON WRITS OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT Court Below:
SYLLABUS BY THE COURT
Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986 Drug Act), the 5- and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms for federal drug crimes reflected a 100-to-1 disparity between the amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger the minimums. Thus, the 5-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine but 500 grams of powder, and the 10-year minimum was triggered by a conviction for possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams of crack but 5,000 grams of powder. The United States Sentencing Commission-which is charged under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 with writing the Federal Sentencing Guide-lines-incorporated the 1986 Drug Act's 100-to-1 disparity into the Guidelines because it believed that doing so was the best way to keep similar drug-trafficking sentences proportional, thereby satisfying the Sentencing Reform Act's basic proportionality objective. The Fair Sentencing Act, which took effect on August 3, 2010, reduced the disparity to 18-to-1, lowering the mandatory minimums applicable to many crack offenders, by increasing the amount of crack needed to trigger the 5-year minimum from 5 to 28 grams and the amount for the 10-year minimum from 50 to 280 grams, while leaving the powder cocaine amounts intact. It also directed the Sentencing Commission to make conforming amendments to the Guidelines "as soon as practicable" (but no later than 90 days after the Fair Sentencing Act's effective date). The new amendments became effective on November 1, 2010.
In No. 11-5721, petitioner Hill unlawfully sold 53 grams of crack in 2007, but was not sentenced until December 2010. Sentencing him to the 10-year minimum mandated by the 1986 Drug Act, the District Judge ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act's 5-year minimum for selling that amount of crack did not apply to those whose offenses were committed before the Act's effective date. In No. 11-5683, petitioner Dorsey unlawfully sold 5.5 grams of crack in 2008. In September 2010, the District Judge sentenced him to the 1986 Drug Act's 10-year minimum, finding that it applied because Dorsey had a prior drug conviction and declining to apply the Fair Sentencing Act, under which there would be no mandated minimum term for an amount less than 28 grams, because Dorsey's offense predated that Act's effective date. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in both cases.
Held: The Fair Sentencing Act's new, lower mandatory minimums apply to the post-Act sentencing of pre-Act offenders. Pp. 10-20.
(a) Language in different statutes argues in opposite directions. The general federal saving statute (1871 Act) provides that a new criminal statute that "repeal[s]" an older criminal statute shall not change the penalties "incurred" under that older statute "unless the repealing Act shall so expressly provide." 1 U. S. C. §109. The word "repeal" applies when a new statute simply diminishes the penalties that the older statute set forth, see Warden v. Marrero, 417 U. S. 653, 659-664, and penalties are "incurred" under the older statute when an offender becomes subject to them, i.e., commits the underlying conduct that makes the offender liable, see United States v. Reisinger, 128 U. S. 398, 401. In contrast, the Sentencing Reform Act says that, regardless of when the offender's conduct occurs, the applicable sentencing guidelines are the ones "in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced." 18 U. S. C. §3553(a)(4)(A)(ii).
Six considerations, taken together, show that Congress intended the Fair Sentencing Act's more lenient penalties to apply to offenders who committed crimes before August 3, 2010, but were sentenced after that date. First, the 1871 saving statute permits Congress to apply a new Act's more lenient penalties to pre-Act offenders without expressly saying so in the new Act. The 1871 Act creates what is in effect a less demanding interpretive requirement because the statute "cannot justify a disregard of the will of Congress as manifested, either expressly or by necessary implication, in a subsequent enactment." Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 208 U. S. 452, 465. Hence, this Court has treated the 1871 Act as setting forth an important background principle of interpretation that requires courts, before interpreting a new criminal statute to apply its new penalties to a set of pre-Act offenders, to assure themselves by the "plain import" or "fair implication" of the new statute that ordinary interpretive considerations point clearly in that direction. Second, the Sentencing Reform Act sets forth a special and different background principle in §3553(a)(4)(A)(ii), which applies unless ex post facto concerns are present. Thus, new, lower Guidelines amendments apply to offenders who committed an offense before the adoption of the amendments but are sentenced thereafter. Third, language in the Fair Sentencing Act implies that Congress intended to follow the Sentencing Reform Act's special background principle here. Section 8 of the Fair Sentencing Act requires the Commission to promulgate conforming amendments to the Guidelines that "achieve consistency with other guideline provisions and applicable law." Read most naturally, "applicable law" refers to the law as changed by the Fair Sentencing Act, including the provision reducing the crack mandatory minimums. And consistency with "other guideline provisions" and with prior Commission practice would require application of the new Guidelines amendments to offenders who committed their offense before the new amendments' effective date but were sentenced thereafter. Fourth, applying the 1986 Drug Act's old mandatory minimums to the post-August 3 sentencing of pre-August 3 offenders would create sentencing disparities of a kind that Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act and the Fair Sentencing Act to prevent. Fifth, not to apply the Fair Sentencing Act would do more than preserve a disproportionate status quo; it would make matters worse by creating new anomalies"new sets of disproportionate sentences"not previously present. That is because sentencing courts must apply the new Guidelines (consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act's new minimums) to pre-Act offenders, and the 1986 Drug Act's old minimums would trump those new Guidelines for some pre-Act offenders but not for all of them. Application of the 1986 Drug Act minimums to preAct offenders sentenced after the new Guidelines take effect would therefore produce a set of sentences at odds with Congress' basic efforts to create more uniform, more proportionate sentences. Sixth, this Court has found no strong countervailing considerations that would make a critical difference. Pp. 10-19.
(b) The new Act's lower minimums also apply to those who committed an offense prior to August 3 and were sentenced between that date and November 1, 2010, the effective date of the new Guidelines. The Act simply instructs the Commission to promulgate new Guidelines "as soon as practicable" (but no later than 90 days after the Act took effect), and thus as far as Congress was concerned, the Commission might have promulgated those Guidelines to be effective as early as August 3. In any event, courts, treating the Guidelines as advisory, possess authority to sentence in accordance with the new minimums. Finally, applying the new minimums to all who are sentenced after August 3 makes it possible to foresee a reasonably smooth transition, and this Court has no reason to believe Congress would have wanted to impose an unforeseeable, potentially complex application date. Pp. 19-20.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breyer
Federal statutes impose mandatory minimum prison sentences upon those convicted of federal drug crimes. These statutes typically base the length of a minimum prison term upon the kind and amount of the drug involved. Until 2010, the relevant statute imposed upon an offender who dealt in powder cocaine the same sentence it imposed upon an offender who dealt in one one-hundredth that amount of crack cocaine. It imposed, for example, the same 5-year minimum term upon (1) an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine as upon (2) an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack.
In 2010, Congress enacted a new statute reducing the crack-to-powder cocaine disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Fair Sentencing Act, 124 Stat. 2372. The new statute took effect on August 3, 2010. The question here is whether the Act's more lenient penalty provisions apply to offenders who committed a crack cocaine crime before August 3, 2010, but were not sentenced until after August 3. We hold that the new, more lenient mandatory minimum provisions do apply to those pre-Act offenders.
The underlying question before us is one of congressional intent as revealed in the Fair Sentencing Act's language, structure, and basic objectives. Did Congress intend the Act's more lenient penalties to apply to pre-Act offenders sentenced after the Act took effect?
We recognize that, because of important background principles of interpretation, we must assume that Congress did not intend those penalties to apply unless it clearly indicated to the contrary. See infra, at 10--13. But we find that clear indication here. We rest our conclusion primarily upon the fact that a contrary determination would seriously undermine basic Federal Sentencing Guidelines objectives such as uniformity and proportionality in sentencing. Indeed, seen from that perspective, a contrary determination would (in respect to relevant groups of drug offenders) produce sentences less uniform and more disproportionate than if Congress had not enacted the Fair Sentencing Act at all. See infra, at 14--18.
Because our conclusion rests upon an analysis of the Guidelines-based sentencing system Congress has established, we describe that system at the outset and include an explanation of how the Guidelines interact with federal statutes setting forth specific terms of imprisonment.
The Guidelines originate in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, 98 Stat. 1987. That statute created a federal Sentencing Commission instructed to write guidelines that judges would use to determine sentences imposed upon offenders convicted of committing federal crimes. 28 U. S. C. §§991, 994. Congress thereby sought to increase transparency, uniformity, and proportionality in sentencing. United States Sentencing Commission (USSC or Commission), Guidelines Manual §1A1.3, p. 2 (Nov. 2011) (USSG); see 28 U. S. C. §§991(b)(1), 994(f).
The Sentencing Reform Act directed the Commission to create in the Guidelines categories of offense behavior (e.g., " 'bank robbery/committed with a gun/$2500 taken' ") and offender characteristics (e.g., "one prior conviction"). USSG §1A1.2, at 1; see 28 U. S. C. §§994(a)--(e). A sentencing judge determines a Guidelines range by (1) finding the applicable offense level and offender category and then (2) consulting a table that lists proportionate sentencing ranges (e.g., 18 to 24 months of imprisonment) at the intersections of rows (marking offense levels) and columns (marking offender categories). USSG ch. 5, pt. A, Sentencing Table, §§5E1.2, 7B1.4; see also §1A1.4(h), at 11. The Guidelines, after telling the judge how to determine the applicable offense level and offender category, instruct the judge to apply the intersection's range in an ordinary case, but they leave the judge free to depart from that range in an unusual case. See 18 U. S. C. §3553(b); USSG §§1A1.2, at 1--2, 1A1.4(b), at 6--7. This Court has held that the Guidelines are now advisory. United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, 245, 264 (2005); see Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U. S. 85, 91 (2007).
The Guidelines determine most drug-crime offense levels in a special way. They set forth a Drug Quantity Table (or Table) that lists amounts of various drugs and associates different amounts with different "Base Offense Levels" (to which a judge may add or subtract levels depending upon the "specific" characteristics of the offender's behavior). See USSG §2D1.1. The Table, for example, associates 400 to 499 grams of powder cocaine with a base offense level of 24, a level that would mean for a first-time offender a prison term of 51 to 63 months. §2D1.1(c).
In 1986, Congress enacted a more specific, drug-related sentencing statute, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986 Drug Act), 100 Stat. 3207. That statute sets forth mandatory minimum penalties of 5 and 10 years applicable to a drug offender depending primarily upon the kind and amount of drugs involved in the offense. See 21 U. S. C. §§841(b)(1) (A)--(C) (2006 ed. and Supp. IV). The minimum applicable to an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of powder cocaine is 5 years, and for 5,000 grams or more of powder the minimum is 10 years. §§841(b)(1)(A)(ii), (B)(ii). The 1986 Drug Act, however, treated crack cocaine crimes as far more serious. It applied its 5-year minimum to an offender convicted of possessing with intent to distribute only 5 grams of crack (as compared to 500 grams of powder) and its 10-year minimum to one convicted of possessing with intent to distribute only 50 grams of crack (as compared to 5,000 grams of powder), thus producing a 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio. §§841(b)(1)(A)(iii), (B)(iii) (2006 ed.).
The 1986 Drug Act, like other federal sentencing statutes, interacts with the Guidelines in an important way. Like other sentencing statutes, it trumps the Guidelines. Thus, ordinarily no matter what the Guidelines provide, a judge cannot sentence an offender to a sentence beyond the maximum contained in the federal statute setting forth the crime of conviction. Similarly, ordinarily no matter what range the Guidelines set forth, a sentencing judge must sentence an offender to at least the minimum prison term set forth in a statutory mandatory minimum. See 28 U. S. C. §§994(a), (b)(1); USSG §5G1.1; Neal v. United States, 516 U. S. 284, 289--290, 295 (1996).
Not surprisingly, the Sentencing Commission incorporated the 1986 Drug Act's mandatory minimums into the first version of the Guidelines themselves. Kimbrough, supra, at 96--97. It did so by setting a base offense level for a first-time drug offender that corresponded to the lowest Guidelines range above the applicable mandatory minimum. USSC, Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 53--54 (Oct. 2011) (2011 Report). Thus, the first Guidelines Drug Quantity Table associated 500 grams of powder cocaine with an offense level of 26, which for a first-time offender meant a sentencing range of 63 to 78 months (just above the 5-year minimum), and it associated 5,000 grams of powder cocaine with an offense level of 32, which for a first-time offender meant a sentencing range of 121 to 151 months (just above the 10-year minimum). USSG §2D1.1 (Oct. 1987). Further reflecting the 1986 Drug Act's 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio, the Table associated an offense level of 26 with 5 grams of crack and an offense level of 32 with 50 grams of crack. Ibid.
In addition, the Drug Quantity Table set offense levels for small drug amounts that did not trigger the 1986 Drug Act's mandatory minimums so that the resulting Guidelines sentences would remain proportionate to the sentences for amounts that did trigger these minimums. 2011 Report 54. Thus, the Table associated 400 grams of powder cocaine (an amount that fell just below the amount triggering the 1986 Drug Act's 5-year minimum) with an offense level of 24, which for a first-time offender meant a sentencing range of 51 to 63 months (the range just below the 5-year minimum). USSG §2D1.1 (Oct. 1987). Following the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio, the Table associated four grams of crack (an amount that also fell just below the amount triggering the 1986 Drug Act's 5-year minimum) with an offense level of 24. Ibid.
The Commission did this not because it necessarily thought that those levels were most in keeping with past sentencing practice or would independently have reflected a fair set of sentences, but rather because the Commission believed that doing so was the best way to keep similar drug-trafficking sentences proportional, thereby satisfying the Sentencing Reform Act's basic "proportionality" objective. See Kimbrough, 552 U. S., at 97; USSG §1A1.3 (Nov. 2011); 2011 Report 53--54, 349, and n. 845. For this reason, the Commission derived the Drug Quantity Table's entire set of crack and powder cocaine offense levels by using the 1986 Drug Act's two (5- and 10-year) minimum amounts as reference points and then extrapolating from those two amounts upward and downward to set proportional offense levels for other drug amounts. Ibid.
During the next two decades, the Commission and others in the law enforcement community strongly criticized Congress' decision to set the crack-to-powder mandatory minimum ratio at 100-to-1. The Commission issued four separate reports telling Congress that the ratio was too high and unjustified because, for example, research showed the relative harm between crack and powder cocaine less severe than 100-to-1, because sentences embodying that ratio could not achieve the Sentencing Reform Act's "uniformity" goal of treating like offenders alike, because they could not achieve the "proportionality" goal of treating different offenders (e.g., major drug traffickers and low-level dealers) differently, and because the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences. Kimbrough, supra, at 97--98; see, e.g., USSC, Special Report to the Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 197--198 (Feb. 1995) (1995 Report); USSC, Special Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 8 (Apr. 1997) (1997 Report); USSC, Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 91, 103 (May 2002) (2002 Report); USSC, Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 8 (May 2007) (2007 Report). The Commission also asked Congress for new legislation embodying a lower crack-to-powder ratio. 1995 Report 198--200; 1997 Report 9--10; 2002 Report 103-- 107; 2007 Report 6--9. And the Commission recommended that the legislation "include" an "emergency amendment" allowing "the Commission to incorporate the statutory changes" in the Guidelines while "minimiz[ing] the lag between any statutory and guideline modifications for cocaine offenders." Id., at 9.
In 2010, Congress accepted the Commission's recommendations, see 2002 Report 104; 2007 Report 8--9, and n. 26, and enacted the Fair Sentencing Act into law. The Act increased the drug amounts triggering mandatory minimums for crack trafficking offenses from 5 grams to 28 grams in respect to the 5-year minimum and from 50 grams to 280 grams in respect to the 10-year minimum (while leaving powder at 500 grams and 5,000 grams respectively). §2(a), 124 Stat. 2372. The change had the effect of lowering the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio to 18-to-1. (The Act also eliminated the 5-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack. §3, 124 Stat. 2372.)
Further, the Fair Sentencing Act instructed the Commission to "make such conforming amendments to the Federal sentencing guidelines as the Commission determines necessary to achieve consistency with other guideline provisions and applicable law." §8(2), id., at 2374. And it directed the Commission to "promulgate the guidelines, policy statements, or amendments provided for in this Act as soon as practicable, and in any event not later than 90 days" after the new Act took effect. §8(1), ibid.
The Fair Sentencing Act took effect on August 3, 2010. The Commission promulgated conforming emergency Guidelines amendments that became effective on November 1, 2010. 75 Fed. Reg. 66188 (2010). A permanent version of those Guidelines amendments took effect on November 1, 2011. See 76 id., at 24960 (2011).
With this background in mind, we turn to the relevant facts of the cases before us. Corey Hill, one of the petitioners, unlawfully sold 53 grams of crack in March 2007, before the Fair Sentencing Act became law. App. in No. 11--5721, pp. 6, 83 (hereinafter Hill App.). Under the 1986 Drug Act, an offender who sold 53 grams of crack was subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum. 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(A)(iii) (2006 ed.). Hill was not sentenced, however, until December 2010, after the Fair Sentencing Act became law and after the new Guidelines amendments had become effective. Hill App. 83--94. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, an offender who sold 53 grams of crack was subject to a 5-year, not a 10-year, minimum. §841(b)(1)(B)(iii) (2006 ed., Supp. IV). The sentencing judge stated that, if he thought that the Fair Sentencing Act applied, he would have sentenced Hill to that Act's 5-year minimum. Id., at 69. But he concluded that the Fair Sentencing Act's lower minimums apply only to those who committed a drug crime after August 3, 2010-the Act's effective date. Id., at 65, 68. That is to say, he concluded that the new Act's more lenient sentences did not apply to those who committed a crime before August 3, even if they were sentenced after that date. Hence, the judge sentenced Hill to 10 years of imprisonment. Id., at 78. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. 417 Fed. Appx. 560 (2011).
The second petitioner, Edward Dorsey (who had previously been convicted of a drug felony), unlawfully sold 5.5 grams of crack in August 2008, before the Fair Sentencing Act took effect. App. in No. 5683, pp. 9, 48--49, 57--58 (hereinafter Dorsey App.). Under the 1986 Drug Act, an offender such as Dorsey with a prior drug felony who sold 5.5 grams of crack was subject to a 10-year minimum. §841(b)(1)(B)(iii) (2006 ed.). Dorsey was not sentenced, however, until September 2010, after the new Fair Sentencing Act took effect. Id., at 84--95. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, such an offender who sold 5.5 grams of crack was not subject to a mandatory minimum at all, for 5.5 grams is less than the 28 grams that triggers the new Act's mandatory minimum provisions. §841(b)(1)(B)(iii) (2006 ed., Supp. IV). Dorsey asked the judge to apply the Fair Sentencing Act's more lenient statutory penalties. Id., at 54--55.
Moreover, as of Dorsey's sentencing in September 2010, the unrevised Guidelines (reflecting the 1986 Drug Act's old minimums) were still in effect. The Commission had not yet finished revising the Guidelines to reflect the new, lower statutory minimums. And the basic sentencing statute, the Sentencing Reform Act, provides that a judge shall apply the Guidelines that "are in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced." 18 U. S. C. §3553(a)(4)(A)(ii).
The sentencing judge, however, had the legal authority not to apply the Guidelines at all (for they are advisory). But he also knew that he could not ignore a minimum sentence contained in the applicable statute. Dorsey App. 67--68. The judge noted that, even though he was sentencing Dorsey after the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act, Dorsey had committed the underlying crime prior to that date. Id., at 69--70. And he concluded that the 1986 Drug Act's old minimums, not the new Fair Sentencing Act, applied in those circumstances. Ibid. He consequently sentenced Dorsey to the 1986 Drug Act's 10-year mandatory minimum term. Id., at 80. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ...