Crack Cocaine 'Fair Sentencing Act' Should Be Retroactive, Holder Says

Jun 1, 2011

Saying that the Fair Sentencing Act that narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and power cocaine offenses has been "a historic step forward," Attorney Gen. Eric Holder pushed today for retroactively applying the lighter crack penalties to some offenders now serving time.

"We have more to do," Holder said in a statement prepared for a hearing held this morning by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "Although the Fair Sentencing Act is being successfully implemented nationwide, achieving its central goals of promoting public safety and public trust — and ensuring a fair and effective criminal justice system – requires the retroactive application of its guideline amendment."

As The Associated Press reports, "a year ago, a drug dealer caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory 10 years in federal prison. Today, new rules [the Fair Sentencing Act] cut that to as little as five years, and thousands of inmates not covered by the change are saying their sentences should be reduced, too."

And if the sentencing guidelines are made retroactive, AP adds, that could mean "early release for as many as 1 in every 18 federal prisoners, or approximately 12,000 inmates."

The wire service notes that "since the 1990s, advocates have complained that crack offenders are treated more harshly than those arrested with powdered cocaine. Many critics view the disparity as racial discrimination because black drug offenders are more likely to be charged with federal crack offenses and to serve longer prison terms than other offenders."

The Wall Street Journal says that if the sentencing guidelines are made retroactive, "most people convicted of crack offenses would be released over the next three years, though some with longer sentences would be freed over 30 years."

Update at 12:30 p.m. ET. Fewer Than Has Been Thought Might Be Eligible: NPR's Carrie Johnson tells us this is the first time the Obama administration has said it supports extending more lenient penalties for cocaine possession to the thousands of people who have already been convicted of drug offenses.

She adds, though, that the Obama plan would carve out an exception for people who used guns in commission of a crime and for people who had longer criminal records. Those exceptions would rule out leniency for at least half of the 12,000 eligible inmates, according to federal public defenders and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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