Federal panel OKs shorter sentences for crack offenders
About 12,000 federal prisoners nationwide may soon go home, some as much as three years early, under a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision to allow retroactive reductions in prison terms for inmates convicted of crack-cocaine offenses.
WASHINGTON — About 12,000 federal prisoners nationwide may soon go home, some as much as three years early, under a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision to allow retroactive reductions in prison terms for inmates convicted of crack-cocaine offenses.
The commission voted unanimously Thursday to bring "unfairly long sentences" for crack offenders, mostly African Americans, more in line with shorter terms given powder-cocaine offenders, often white and sometimes affluent.
Congress last year substantially lowered the sentences for crack-related crimes such as possession and trafficking, changing a 1980s law that was criticized as racially discriminatory because it came down extra hard on a drug common in poor, black neighborhoods.
The question before the commission Thursday was whether people already locked up under the old law should benefit retroactively from the changes. The six-member commission unanimously decided in their favor.
Patti Saris, who heads the commission, said that when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, it "recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine-sentencing policy," and the commission sought to bridge the disparity.
"Justice demands this result," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, the commission's vice chairman.
The commission's action is final unless Congress decides by the end of October to intervene, and that is considered unlikely.
When the reductions go into effect in November, the average crack sentence will be cut by about 37 months, and the federal Bureau of Prisons said the reductions could save more than $200 million in the next five years. Nearly 6 percent of the federal inmate population would be released.
The reductions are not automatic. Prisoners must file petitions and are required to show they are no longer a risk to society. Inmates who used weapons in their crimes or have lengthy criminal histories may not be eligible.
According to the commission, approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 people in federal prisons will be eligible to have their sentences cut. Inmates convicted under state law will not be affected.
The commission's mail, about 43,500 letters and emails, ran overwhelmingly in favor of the reductions. The Sentencing Project, which pushes for change in sentencing laws, also strongly encouraged approval of the reductions.
Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, said the panel's vote "confirms that fairness and equal treatment under the law are fundamental principles of our criminal-justice system."
Republicans, most notably Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, opposed the reductions. He had lobbied the commission not to grant the early releases, warning it "merely gets criminals back into action faster."
By Richard A. Serrano
Tribune Washington bureau
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report. Originally published Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 4:48 PM