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Civil Rights Groups Call for Retroactive Application of Guidelines for Cocaine Sentencing

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A group of seven prominent national civil rights organizations that includes The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to support the retroactive application of a new set of sentencing guidelines that accompany the implementation of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the discriminatory sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

Before the FSA, a person charged with possession of just five grams of crack cocaine – the weight of two sugar packets – received the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone caught with 500 grams – about a pound – of powder cocaine. The FSA reduced the sentencing disparity from a ratio of 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the federal agency that creates sentencing guidelines for the nation’s federal courts, is currently deciding whether to make the new guidelines retroactive. Though the guidelines are advisory, the vast majority of federal judges adhere to them when deciding how many more months or years should be added to the mandatory minimum sentence that a person convicted of drug possession should receive. If the new guidelines are applied retroactively, about 12,000 offenders currently incarcerated under the old law between October 1, 1991, and September 30, 2010 (fiscal years 1992 through 2010), could have their sentences reduced.

The groups say that it is "incumbent upon" the Department of Justice to support retroactive application of commission's guidelines. The letter states:

"In the past when the Sentencing Commission acted to mitigate the unfairness of crack sentences, it applied its guidelines retroactively – allowing individuals currently incarcerated an opportunity for a fairer sentence. It would be a travesty not to do so in this circumstance. Continuing to incarcerate people pursuant to the discredited, racially discriminatory former policy would undermine the progress that has been made toward fairness.

The administration has been a leader in addressing the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. Now is not the time to stop leading."

The letter was signed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Action Network, The Leadership Conference, and the Charles Hamilton Institute.

Read the full article here.