News & Politics

Federal Crack Prisoners Will Get Sentence Cuts

Thousands of inmates imprisoned on federal crack cocaine charges will be able to seek sentence reductions and early release after a US Sentencing Commission vote.

 Thousands of inmates imprisoned on federal crack cocaine charges will be able to seek sentence reductions and early release after the US Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Thursday to make changes in federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenders it had approved earlier this year retroactive. About 85% of those crack prisoners are black.

The changes in the sentencing guidelines came after Congress last year passed the Fair Sentencing Act reducing the notorious disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under drug laws passed amidst the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while people caught with powder cocaine had to be carrying 100 times as much of the drug to garner the same sentence.

The law passed last year reduced the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but did not eliminate it. After passage of the law, the Sentencing Commission proposed a permanent amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines to implement the new law, which would result in sentence reductions for newly convicted crack offenders. But that amendment provided no relief for those already serving harsh crack sentences—until now.

With the Sentencing Commission's vote Thursday, retroactivity for current crack prisoners will go into effect the same date as the proposed amendment, November 1, unless Congress acts to undo it. But despite the grumblings of a few Republicans, that appears unlikely.

"In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," noted Commission chair, Judge Patti Saris. "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."

While not every crack offender in the federal prison system will be eligible to seek a lower sentence, more than 12,000 will, and they will see an average sentence reduction of slightly more than three years. That should result in a cost savings of more than $200 million over the next five years, the Commission said. 

But with an average crack sentence of about 13 ½ years, current crack prisoners will still serve a harsh average of about 10 ½ years. And many future crack offenders will still be handed down mandatory minimum five- or 10-year sentences based on the amount of crack involved in their offenses.

While advocates lauded the commission's move, they noted that there was still more work to be done. Still, for many, some of whom have been working to redress the injustice for years, Thursday was a day of joy and relief.

"I am thrilled for our members and their families who suffered under a sentencing scheme that Congress admitted was fundamentally flawed, said Julie Stewart founder and director of Families against Mandatory Minimums. "I am also grateful to the members of the Sentencing Commission who responded to facts, not fear. The Commission once again has played its rightful role as the agency responsible for developing sound, evidence-based sentencing recommendations. In fact, if Congress had listened to the Commission fifteen long years ago when it first called for crack sentencing reform, today’s vote might not have been necessary,” said Ms. Stewart.

But noting that Thursday's vote only applied retroactivity to relaxed sentencing guidelines and not to pre-Fair Sentencing Act mandatory minimums, Stewart called on Congress to make the act retroactive as well, bringing relief to those serving mandatory minimum sentences.

"The ball is now in Congress’s court," Stewart said. "To finish the job, Congress must now make the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine retroactive."

While calling the commission's action "the right thing," ACLU Washington Legislative Office director Laura Murphy also said further reform was needed. "Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people s who received unfair sentences under the old crack cocaine law. However, despite today’s victory, sizeable racial and sentencing disparities still exist, and it is time for our country to seriously rethink mandatory minimums and a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. Based on little more than politics and urban myth, the sentencing gap between powder and crack cocaine has been devastating to our African-American communities."

The change has been a long time coming, said the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Since 1995, the US Sentencing Commission has, in four reports to Congress, requested that Congress raise the threshold quantities of crack that trigger mandatory minimums in order to ease the unconscionable racial disparities in sentencing," said Jasmine L. Tyler, DPA deputy director of national affairs. "This vote to provide retroactive relief to the thousands of defendants whose sentences the Commission has consistently condemned for the past seventeen years."

"The difference between crack and powder cocaine is cultural, not chemical," said Jim Lavine, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The Commission’s own research indicates that over 80 percent of the non-violent offenders who will benefit from the new guideline are African-American or Hispanic. We can’t give back all the time that offenders served under the previous guidelines, but reducing prison time for those persons still incarcerated is a significant recognition of the unfairness of the old law," he said. "A civilized society doesn’t mete out punishment based on a defendant’s culture or skin color."

Some Republican lawmakers had opposed retroactivity, arguing that early releases would pose a threat to the public safety, but the Sentencing Commission reported that prisoners released early had no higher rate of recidivism than those who served more time. It also sought to reassure nervous conservatives that each case would be carefully reviewed.

"The Commission is aware of concern that today’s actions may negatively impact public safety," said Judge Saris. "However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the Commission’s policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender’s potential risk to public safety. The average sentence for a federal crack cocaine offender will remain significant at about 127 months," she explained.

The Sentencing Commission's vote is a significant victory against prejudice and injustice and marks another milestone in the retreat from the "lock 'em up" mania that has dominated the officials response to illicit drug use and sales for decades. But the fact that the federal courts are still going to be sending people to prison for a decade for slinging some rocks, or even, in some cases, merely possessing them, shows how far we still have to go.

Editor's note: The original version of this article understated the average length of crack sentences. It has been updated.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.
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