Pubdate: Fri, 02 Nov 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Solomon Moore
Cited: US Sentencing Commission
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Crack cocaine offenders will receive shorter prison sentences under 
more lenient federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect yesterday.

The United States Sentencing Commission, a government panel that 
recommends appropriate federal prison terms, estimated that the new 
guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years.

The new guidelines will reduce the average sentence for crack cocaine 
possession to 8 years 10 months from 10 years 1 month. At a 
sentencing commission hearing in Washington on Nov. 13, members will 
consider whether to apply the guidelines retroactively to an 
estimated 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced under the 
earlier, stricter guidelines.

The changes to the original 1987 guidelines could also add impetus to 
three bills in the Senate, one sponsored by a Democrat and two by 
Republicans, that would reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums for 
simple drug possession.

Department of Justice officials said yesterday that applying the new 
guidelines retroactively would erode federal drug enforcement efforts 
and undermine Congress's role in creating sentencing policy.

"The commission is now considering applying the changes 
retroactively, something that Congress has not suggested in any of 
the pending bills," wrote a department spokesman, Peter Carr. "As we 
state in a letter filed with the commission today, we believe this 
would be a mistake, having a serious impact on the safety of our 
communities and impose an unreasonable burden upon our judicial system."

If the guidelines are retroactive, crack cocaine offenders would be 
eligible to apply to the judge or court that sentenced them for 
reduced prison terms.

In a letter to the commission in support of retroactivity, the 
American Bar Association acknowledged the possibility that "courts 
will likely be inundated" by crack cocaine offenders trying to appeal 
their cases under the new guidelines regardless of the commission's 
decision. But the association said that applying the new rules to 
current prisoners would result in "cleaner and more uniform decisions."

Although Congress sets federal criminal statutes and could have 
rejected the sentencing guidelines within the 180-day period that 
ended yesterday, once the new guidelines were adopted it became the 
commission's sole decision to apply the new rules retroactively or not.

Some legal observers said the guideline changes were a way of shoring 
up the commission's credibility in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court 
case that allowed federal judges, many of whom thought the guidelines 
were too harsh, to apply lower sentences in some crack cocaine sentences.

"That created a kind of instability in the overall sentencing 
guidelines," said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State University law 
professor. "I think the commission recognized that the long-term 
health of all of its guidelines depends on its ability to get 
judicial adherence to their guidelines."

Federal penalties for crack cocaine were also widely criticized by 
civil rights activists, politicians and the Sentencing Commission 
itself for increasing racial disparities in the federal prison 
population. Blacks make up more than 80 percent of federal crack 
convictions, according to the commission.

Critics said it was unfair to apply longer sentences for crack 
cocaine than for similar substances, including powder cocaine. Under 
the current federal law, for example, the minimum sentence for 
possession of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine is 10 years, the same as 
the minimum sentence for 50 grams of crack cocaine.

The commission has also argued that the old sentencing rules diverted 
resources away from major drug cases to low-level street dealers.

The commission proposed changes to its guidelines on crack cocaine 
offenses in 1995 and was rejected by Congress, sparking riots in the 
federal prison system. 
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