Pubdate: Mon, 11 Jul 2011
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2011 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Last year, after more than two decades of debate, Congress finally 
addressed a gross disparity in sentencing for crimes involving 
different types of cocaine, crack and powder.

Now, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has adopted federal sentencing 
guideline revisions that would allow thousands of convicted drug 
offenders to petition for reduced prison terms.

It's not a universally popular move, but it's a revision that makes sense.

The federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine were 
well-intentioned but turned out to be an overreaction to drug-related 
violence in the mid-1980s. Lawmakers, concluding that crack was far 
more dangerous than the powered form of the drug, made mandatory 
minimum sentences for crack 100 times higher than those for powder.

For example, a person caught with 50 grams of crack was sentenced to 
10 years upon conviction. An individual would have to be convicted of 
possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.

Many lawmakers and criminal justice experts, including federal 
judges, considered the disparity unfair. It was also documented to 
result in racial disparities: The majority of crack users were black, 
while more powder cocaine users were white, so racial minorities were 
by law getting much harsher punishment for drug crimes that were 
similar except for the form of the illegal substance.

Various groups campaigned for years to get the laws changed. And some 
federal officials over the years, including President Bill Clinton's 
Attorney General Janet Reno and drug czar Barry McCaffrey, favored 
reducing the ratio. But Congress resisted, insisting that the 
mandatory sentencing was a great weapon in the "war on drugs."

With a push by the Obama administration, Congress in 2010 passed the 
Fair Sentencing Act, which takes effect Nov. 1. Lawmakers reduced the 
punishment ratio between crack and powder from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

Some advocates still consider that disparity too large and would 
prefer it to be 1-to-1. And they weren't happy that the law applied 
only to convictions going forward rather than affecting the thousands 
of users, 80 percent of them black, who were imprisoned under the old 
sentencing guidelines.

The Sentencing Commission voted unanimously June 30 to let some 
inmates ask federal judges for sentence reductions.

"In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the 
fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and 
ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," said Judge Patti 
Saris, commission chairwoman. She said offenders who meet criteria 
set by the commission could have their sentences reduced "to a level 
consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010."

The commission says about 12,000 prisoners would be eligible to apply 
to have their sentences cut, and the average reduction is expected to 
be 37 months. Most eligible offenders aren't likely to be released 
from prison immediately: The commission said in a news release that 
even after reductions, the average sentence for those prisoners 
affected will be about 10 years.

That should allay concerns raised by House Judiciary Committee 
Chairman Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who opposed the idea of 
retroactivity, saying releasing prisoners earlier "merely gets 
criminals back into action faster."

Under the commission's changes, inmates must petition a federal judge 
for a revised sentence and must demonstrate they are no longer a risk 
to public safety. That could be a difficult task for many. Those who 
can't meet the test would have to serve their full sentence; they 
would still be eligible for release after doing so.

The Bureau of Prisons says applying the changes in crack sentencing 
to current prisoners could save more than $200 million within the 
first five years.

Public safety is a legitimate and serious issue that can't be 
dismissed. But so is fairness in the criminal justice system.

It appears that the new sentencing law and the retroactivity 
provision have been carefully crafted so that safety isn't sacrificed 
for fairness.
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