Retroactive Sentencing Applied to Crack Cocaine Convictions

December 12, 2007 05:21 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The U.S. Sentencing Commission votes unanimously to make new, more lenient sentencing provisions for crimes involving crack cocaine retroactive. Supporters of the move say that the past laws were racist; opponents protest that drug dealers are being let off too lightly.

30-Second Summary

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal panel that assesses the fairness of judicial punishments, decided in a 7-0 vote to apply the new laws to the sentences of prisoners already serving time.

The commission’s decision follows a day after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-2 vote ruling that judges may impose shorter terms for offenses related to crack cocaine, to bring them in line with the punishments given out for crimes related to powder cocaine.

Prior to this reform in drug sentencing, the penalties associated with possessing or selling one gram of crack were the same as those for 100 grams of powder cocaine.

Crack is cheaper than powder cocaine and more commonly found in poorer, inner-city neighborhoods. Consequently, the imbalance in punishments has led some observers to claim a racial bias in the legislature. According to The New York Times, “About 85 percent of the federal inmates behind bars for crack offenses are black.”

Sentencing Commission member Judge William K. Sessions III said, “At its core, this question is one of fairness. This system of justice is, and must always be, colorblind.”

Statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission show that on average eligible prisoners may now see their sentences reduced by 17 percent. Some 3,800 convicts have a chance of release within the coming year as a result of the commission’s move.

Some observers, such as NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, declared that the retroactive application of the measure was necessary to reduce tension between minorities and the judiciary. “Making the amendment retroactive will … help repair the image of the sentencing guidelines in communities of color,” Bond said.

Headline link: ‘Retroactively, Panel Reduces Drug Sentences’

Background: The Supreme Court, the Sentencing Commission, and the Justice Department

Historical Context: The 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse acts

Opinions & Analysis: What legal analysts have been saying

Reference Materials: The differences between crack and powder cocaine

Drug Enforcement Agency

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