US prisoners sentenced under strict crack cocaine laws get relief
At least 12,000 federal prisoners can seek reductions in their sentences for crack cocaine offenses, after a ruling Thursday by the US Sentencing Commission. The stiff sentences, meted out between 1984 and 2010, hit the black community hard.
Thousands of federal inmates imprisoned under a 1984 law mandating harsh sentences for crack cocaine violations are eligible for shorter sentences, the US Sentencing Commission ruled Thursday.Skip to next paragraph
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The ruling affects at least 12,000 federal prisoners – primarily nonviolent drug offenders and most of them African-American – though they still have to go before judicial panels to argue their cases for getting out of prison early. The average sentence is expected to be reduced by 37 months.
The decision by the six-member US Sentencing Commission ends a long fight by advocacy groups and inmates' family members to dial back sentencing rules for crack-cocaine offenders. One relative called the news "miraculous." Congress last August voted to narrow a huge discrepancy in sentences meted out to people convicted of crack-related crimes and people convicted of powder-cocaine-related crimes, in recognition that the harsher punishments for the former smacked of racial discrimination. Thursday's ruling made the new sentencing law retroactive, applying to people convicted of such crimes before last summer.
The vote by the commission, a bipartisan group of former judges and prosecutors, was unanimous. It applies to cases in which there were no aggravating circumstances, such as gun possession. The ruling follows a pattern that has been emerging across the US, as policymakers reconsider stiff prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
"Normally when we're talking about reducing sentences, it's for very small numbers of people in low-visibility settings, [but] here we're not just talking pardons for three people, but about huge numbers," says Ron Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University. "This is one more example that our basic attitudes toward how to punish crimes are different today than they were 10 years ago."
The decision is part of the commission's long-time effort to "give the fullest remedy" to "a mistake," says Samford University law professor Deborah Young. When Congress approved the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act in August, it dramatically reduced the disparity between sentences for crack versus powder cocaine violations. A violation that would land a powder-cocaine offender in prison for a day would put a crack offender behind bars for 100 days, under the old law. Now that ratio is 1:18, but it applies only to new convictions.
The commission had butted heads with Congress over the sentencing disparity in the 1990s. After Congress took corrective action last summer for new drug offenders, the commission took the opportunity to apply that reform even more broadly.
Eighty-five percent of offenders sentenced under the 1984 crack cocaine sentencing law are African-American and 5 percent are white. (The African-American population of the US is about 13 percent.)
The commission made its decision after studying the effect of a small 2007 modification to crack cocaine sentencing, which revealed no tangible spikes in repeat-offending rates for those released early.
US prison officials had warned, in advance of Thursday's decision, of the possibility that inmates would riot or stir up trouble if their hopes for an earlier release were dashed.