Those serving harsh prison terms for crack possession in US can now heave a sigh of relief.
The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to lighten punishments for crack-related punishments retroactively. The decision could affect some 19,500 federal inmates.
The move, made shrugging away the objections of the Bush administration, takes effect on March 3, 2008. It will not mean automatic release for those serving time though. It only opens the door for them to apply for sentence adjustments and possible earlier release, notes the New York Times.
Still the commission's vote addressed what many analysts have come to see as a deeply unfair consequence of the decades-long war on drugs and the drug-sentencing laws adopted in the mid-1980s, when the fear of drug-induced street violence had a profound effect on public policy and personal behavior.
A 2002 commission report noted that 85 percent of defendants convicted of crack offenses were black, a fact the commission warned was leading to a loss of confidence in the fairness of the justice system.
For a time, crack cocaine was thought to be far more dangerous than powdered cocaine, prompting lawmakers to make crack-related penalties much harsher. As a result, black defendants and their families were affected disproportionately, since crack is used predominantly by blacks and powdered cocaine by whites.
Crack cocaine is a highly addictive and powerful stimulant. It is abused because it produces an immediate high and because it is readily available and affordable.
Crack is produced by dissolving powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). The mixture is boiled until a solid substance forms. The solid is removed from the liquid, dried, and then broken into the chunks (rocks) that are sold as crack cocaine.
The Bush administration has opposed easing crack sentences retroactively, just as it earlier opposed retroactively lightening punishments for those committing crimes related to LSD or marijuana.
The sentencing commission earlier had said that applying its new guidelines retroactively could reduce the average sentence by about 27 months and that about 2,500 prisoners could be released within one year. The remaining eligible inmates could receive proportional reductions, depending on the length of their sentences, with most getting fewer than 24 months off, but some getting 49 months or more trimmed from their sentences.
"There's a lot of people's lives who are dependent on this," said Julie Stewart, founder of a group that advocates easing what it sees as unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes.
Today's action by the sentencing commission was not unexpected, in view of a pair of Supreme Court decisions handed down on Monday that reinforce the discretionary powers of federal district court judges in deciding what punishment to impose. One of those decisions practically invited judges to disagree with those guidelines that call for far longer sentences for crack-related offenses than for crimes associated with powdered cocaine.
The new guidelines to reduce the disparities between punishments for crack and those for powdered cocaine will reduce the average sentence for crack possession to 8 years 10 months from 10 years 1 month.
Congress sets federal criminal statutes and could have stopped the new guidelines from taking effect. But the lawmakers did not, and once they were in place it became the commission's decision to apply them retroactively or not.
Erasing the differences between sentences for the different types of cocaine is only part of the solution to unjust punishment, said Ms. Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The real solution, she said, is to persuade Congress to abolish the mandatory minimums that is, mandatory stays in prison for certain crimes.
"Where we go from here is Capitol Hill," she said.