Inmates Jailed for Crack Cocaine Possession May Get Early Release

November 19, 2007 09:23 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The federal government body ensuring fair judicial sentencing pushes to have new, more lenient sentences related to crack cocaine applied retroactively. 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

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal panel that assesses the fairness of judicial punishments, reduced the penalties for offenses related to crack to mirror those applied with regard to cocaine this past spring. Now the commission is pushing to have the new sentencing provisions applied retroactively, potentially freeing some 3,800 inmates over the next year.

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. Since crack is cheaper and more commonly found in poorer, inner-city neighborhoods, while powder cocaine tends to be used more often by well-to-do whites, some observers inferred that this disparity betrayed a racial bias in the legislature.

This imbalance in sentencing is an issue that was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 2 in Kimbrough v. United States. Derrick Kimbrough, a black veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, was given a 15-year prison term for dealing both crack and powder cocaine. U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, who tried the case, said that the suggested 19- to 22-year sentence was “ridiculous.” The court has yet to make a ruling on the case.

Some observers, such as NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, declared that the retroactive application of the measure is a necessary move 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.

The U.S. Department of Justice is against applying the move retroactively. Alice White, the associate attorney general, said that to commute the sentences of imprisoned felons would be “to unravel the success we have achieved in removing violent crack offenders from high-crime neighborhoods.”

Headline link: Drug penalties raise question of racial bias

Background: The Supreme Court Case

Reactions: The Department of Justice issues its verdict

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

Opinions & Analysis: Legal analysts scrutinize the sentencing disparity

Reference Materials: The differences between crack and powder cocaine

Trends in Cocaine Use

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