The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently announced the retroactive application of guidelines adopted in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The unanimous decision could result in reduced sentences for as many as 12,000 offenders in prison on crack cocaine charges.
Congress passed the 2010 law in an effort to equalize the sentencing for crack and powder cocaine crimes. Crack convictions carried heftier sentences, and crack offenders were more likely to be African American than cocaine offenders.
The disproportionate impact had troubled lawmakers for some time and drawn harsh criticism from the legal community. One law professor referred to the disparity as “unconscionable, incomprehensible and inhumane.”
The retroactive application of the law will affect prisoners who committed a crack cocaine crime before August 2010. Courts will likely start processing petitions for release in November of this year.
The commission estimates the average sentence reduction would be as long as 37 months.
The commission also says that not every petition will be granted. Federal judges will review the applications and reduce sentences only if the offender does not pose a threat to public safety.
The guideline change will also have an impact on federal prison budgets: Officials estimate a savings of $200 million over the next five years.
Before the commission could vote on the amendment, the proposal was open to public comment. Of the 43,500 written responses received, the majority favored the change. Support was also strong during an early June hearing, when Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. expressed his office’s approval.
Legal commentators note that the amendment is not a “get out of jail free” card. Procedural safeguards are in place to ensure public safety.
Crack and powder cocaine criminal statistics are not readily available at the state level. But, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, about 18 percent of offenders admitted to prison in 2010 were there on non-trafficking drug charges.
Source: Law.com, “Sentencing Commission approves retroactive crack guidelines,” Charles Ogletree, 07/01/2011