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Retroactive Changes in Crack Cocaine Sentencing Laws Mean Early Release for 12,000 Federal Inmates

Changes to sentencing laws will effect 1 in 17 inmates in the entire federal corrections system.

Retroactive changes to federal crack cocaine sentencing laws should mean early release for approximately 12,000 federal prisoners.

Long criticized as racist in application, congress voted last year under the ‘Fair Sentencing Act’ to change sentencing guidelines which called for stiffer sentencing on crack cocaine offenses than powder cocaine crimes. Yesterday, a federal sentencing committee announced that a retroactive application of that act would result in the possible early release of 12 000 inmates – 85% of whom are black.

Under previous sentencing guidelines (passed into law in 1986 and repealed in 2010), the possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine earned a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years. For powder cocaine, the same 10 year mandatory minimum went into effect only after 5000 grams.

By 2002, these sentencing guidelines had resulted in such an unfair racial imbalance in sentencing that the US Federal Sentencing Commission at that time commented that for most African Americans, the major and wholly unintended consequence of the law was to “foster disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.”

The earliest prisoners can expected to benefit from early release is by November 2011, and eligible prisoners will still have to petition a judge for a decision on early release – to be made on a case by case basis which will hinge on the inmate’s perceived threat to society and behavior in prison. Eligible prisoners will receive an average of 3 years in sentencing reductions.

Commenting on the significance of the decision to grant retroactive sentencing changes to eligible inmates, US Federal Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti B. Saris stated “In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation. Today’s action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by congress is remedied.”

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