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Drug sentencing plan draws fire

WASHINGTON – A Justice Department representative drew hostile questions from some U.S. Sentencing Commission members Tuesday as she tried to persuade them not to make their recent easing of crack cocaine sentences retroactive.

Gretchen C.F. Shappert, U.S. attorney in Charlotte, N.C., told the independent panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges that the Bush administration opposes retroactivity because it could release “large numbers of convicted drug offenders into vulnerable communities.”

The commission has estimated 19,500 inmates could apply for sentence reductions under the proposal.

The harm to neighborhoods that have struggled with drug abuse “will be swift; it will be sudden and, in my opinion, irreversible,” Shappert told a commission hearing on the retroactivity proposal.

Commission member Ruben Castillo, a federal judge in Chicago, asked Shappert several times if prosecutors wouldn’t have “a good chance of convincing judges to keep serious, violent drug offenders in prison.”

“In some instances,” Shappert eventually conceded.

The retroactivity proposal would not automatically shorten any sentence. A federal judge would have to approve each reduction. The commission estimates that sentences for the 19,500 could be reduced by an average of 27 months and 3,800 could be freed within a year.

The panel’s easing of the guidelines for new crack offenders took effect Nov. 1 after Congress did not overturn it.

Like other crack cocaine questions, whether to make that decision retroactive has been racially charged. Congress has enacted much longer prison sentences for crack crimes, predominantly committed by blacks, than for crimes involving powder cocaine, predominantly committed by whites.

An estimated 86 percent of the 19,500 inmates are black.

The panel has set no deadline for a decision.


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