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U.S. Sentencing Commission Approves Early-Release Possibility for Inmates Sentenced for Crack-Cocaine Offenses

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A federal commission’s approval of new sentencing guidelines could result in significantly reduced sentences for as many as 12,000 federal inmates now serving time for crack-cocaine offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Thursday to allow federal judges to retroactively apply the amendment to federal sentencing guidelines Congress enacted last year. Those amendments narrowed the sharp disparity between the lengthier sentences required to be given to individuals convicted of crack-cocaine offenses compared to those required for conviction of offenses involved powdered cocaine.

Critics of the disparity, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), have long charged the different sentencing guidelines have had a powerful racially discriminatory impact because the crack form of cocaine was overwhelmingly used  and sold by African-American users and drug dealers, while the powered form was overwhelmingly used and sold by white users and drug dealers.

U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, the Chair of the Commission, said in a statement (PDF) that “Today’s action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied, and that federal crack cocaine offenders who meet certain criteria established by the Commission and considered by the courts may have their sentences reduced to a level consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.”   

The Commission’s action does not mean that significant numbers of inmates serving time for crack-cocaine offenses will be immediately, or even quickly, released, given the long sentences these inmates are serving.

A federal judge will decide, based on the new guidelines and other criteria, whether an inmate’s sentence should be reduced. Commission data show that under the existing so-called retroactivity provision that was applied to federal crack-cocaine inmates in early 2008, federal judges have approved 16,433 – just 64 percent – of the 25,515 motions inmates filed for reduced sentences.

Commission officials said the average reduction of an inmate’s sentence is just over 3 years. That means that, if an inmate is successful in having his or her sentence reduced, many will still have 10 years of incarceration left to serve.

Jeffrey Robinson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, praised the Commission’s action. However, he added that the Congress “needs to do more to finally resolve the issue. They should approve a full legislative retroactivity regarding sentences meted out for crack-cocaine offenses, and they should establish a one-to-one relationship in the sentences that apply to those convicted of crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine offenses.