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.
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.
Many conservatives in Congress opposed applying the terms of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Law retroactively. And in a Supreme Court case last month involving the possible early release of thousands of California prisoners, Justice Samuel Alito noted in his dissent that a crime wave occurred in Philadelphia after the early release of thousands of Pennsylvania prisoners several years ago. Many inmates released by California, Justice Alito wrote, will "undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym."
The racial disparity in cocaine-related sentencing embittered many in the black community and raised fresh concerns about discrimination in the criminal justice system. Defenders of harsher punishment for crack cocaine violations, on the other hand, suggested that longer sentences for drug offenders contributed to the steady decline in the US crime rate, which dropped by half in black communities between 1980 and 2005.
"The crux of the debate is that it's one thing to say, 'Let's do better in the future,' and it's another thing to say that somebody who was at least theoretically aware of how harsh the sentences were are now in some sense getting a windfall," says Doug Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University. "But I think a majority of people wouldn't say it's a windfall; it's just making an injustice less unjust."
Twenty-two states – including California and Ohio – are considering whether to restructure their sentencing guidelines to contain skyrocketing incarceration costs, in part by addressing punishments for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes.
"People across a wide political spectrum would say that federal crack cocaine punishments were an abberration and were out of line with what people normally considered smart uses of prison money," says Professor Wright at Wake Forest.
The human impact of the decision came across in heartfelt statements from commissioners, who ultimately rejected a compromise offered by Attorney General Eric Holder to exclude those with prior criminal histories from retroactive appeal. Commission Chairwoman Patti Saris, a federal judge, said it was a "historic day for the commission and for national sentencing policy."
For thousands of families, the decision is the culmination of years of praying and hoping for mercy.
Stephanie Nodd, who is serving time in a federal prison in Florida for conspiracy to distribute eight kilos of crack in the early 1990s, is eligible to have 10 years taken off her 30-year sentence, which means she could be freed soon, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group.
Her brother, Dan Nodd, called the commission's ruling "a blessing, a realization that justice has finally emerged."
He added in an interview with the Monitor: "I hated that it took so long and families had to suffer, people whose mother and father died before they could see their children come home. But we always kept hope, and we were hoping one day that this day would come, and without hope these things are impossible."