WASHINGTON – The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted Tuesday to retroactively reduce the penalties for using and selling crack cocaine, making thousands of federal inmates eligible for early release, some as soon as March.
Despite Justice Department warnings against releasing thousands of criminals, the commission voted unanimously to allow inmates to seek reduced sentences if they were convicted under drug laws passed in the 1980s. Those laws have come under criticism from civil libertarians and many judges for treating crack cocaine offenses more harshly than powder, which has resulted in stiffer penalties for blacks.
Tuesday’s vote, which ultimately could affect some 19,500 federal prisoners serving time for crack convictions, came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges may deviate from the strict sentencing guidelines developed during the “war on drugs.” The two decisions amount to a repudiation of federal law-enforcement policies and a return of power to judges in dispensing justice to defendants in federal courts.
The potentially massive reprieve would be unprecedented. More than 2,500 inmates would be eligible in the first year. No other single rule in the two-decade history of the Sentencing Commission has had the potential to affect so many inmates. The numbers, which amount to 10 percent of all federal prisoners, dwarf even the grants of presidential clemency afforded draft resisters and conscientious objectors after the Vietnam War.
The bulk of inmates eligible for the sentencing break are concentrated in the South, mainly Virginia, Florida and South Carolina.
Earlier this year, the commission adopted more lenient rules for crack defendants sentenced after Nov. 1. Tuesday’s vote gave defendants already sitting in federal prison the benefit of the new regime.
Members of the commission said the move was an important first step to correct what they said was a major injustice that Congress had failed to address.
“Our country has moved in the wrong direction with regard to the so-called war on drugs,” Ruben Castillo, a federal judge in Chicago and a vice chairman of the commission, said before the vote Tuesday. “We need to refocus this war.”
The far-greater punishment for crack users has been long debated. Under federal law, an individual convicted of dealing 5 grams of crack cocaine, even a first-time offender, is automatically sentenced to five years in prison. A similar sentence in a powder cocaine case must involve at least 500 grams. Lawmakers in the 1980s justified the disparity because crack was associated with violent crime and was considered more addictive.
The changes that the commission adopted Tuesday do not affect the prison terms of inmates given those “mandatory minimum” sentences, only those who received higher sentences under the guidelines. The net effect would be to drop the average sentence by about 27 months, or about 17 percent.