A federal sentencing panel has voted unanimously to set new guidelines that will make sentences for crack cocaine retroactive, a move that makes more than 19,500 convicted drug offenders currently serving time in prison eligible for early release.
The decision by the seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission will affect a predominately black group of inmates already serving time by allowing judges to lessen their sentences by two to three years on average, an effort to close a gap between sentences for crack cocaine versus the powder version of the drug.
Offenders, judges or the director of the Bureau of Prisons can make the motion to apply for early release, but ultimately, "these decisions are left to the discretion of federal judges," commissioner Dabney Friedrich said.
Career or very violent offenders, as determined by criminal history and the nature of offenses committed, are not eligible, but as many as 3,800 inmates who qualify could be released in the first year. The decision will take effect March 3, 2008.
"This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card," said commission member Michael Horowitz. "It will provide a greater sense of fairness."
Judge William Sessions, a member of the commission, said at Tuesday's meeting, "These penalties have had dramatic impact on African-American families," as more than 80 percent of federal crack defendants are black.
"This is a historic day," Sessions said. "The system of justice must always be colorblind."
The move comes on the heels of a decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled Monday to allow judges greater latitude to sentence crack cocaine offenders to shorter prison terms.
Congress passed increased penalties on crack cocaine over powder cocaine in 1986, as the crack epidemic led to increased violence and addiction in U.S. cities. The mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses were the same as those for the mostly white individuals convicted of possessing 100 times as much powdered cocaine.
In an effort to reduce the disparity, the commission proposed a measure earlier this year to reduce crack cocaine sentences by an average of 27 months. The change went into effect Nov. 1, but was not applied retroactively at the time.
The commission has never before retroactively applied a change in sentencing that would affect so many people, though it has allowed new sentencing amendments for marijuana-, LSD- and oxycodone-related offenses to be applied to previously sentenced offenders, most of whom are white.
Several groups had come out in favor of a decision to make the guidelines retroactive, in part because of the fact that federal crack prosecutions heavily impact blacks.
"Despite the fact that cocaine use is roughly proportionate among the different populations of our nation, the vast majority of offenders who are tried, convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences are African-American," NAACP Washington bureau director Hilary Shelton said at a forum the commission held on the matter last month.
"Our people in our communities continue to be disproportionately devastated by the law. Almost 83 percent of those convicted of federal cocaine offenses are African-American, while according to the 2000 census, only 12.9 percent of the entire U.S. population is African- American."
On the other side of the argument is the Justice Department, which has strongly objected to retroactive sentence reduction.