This week, prompted by the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to retroactively apply the new rules regarding crack cocaine sentencing to over 12,000 prisoners in the federal system (LA Times).
Sentencing those convicted of crack cocaine possession has been a thorny issue for years and years. Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act, cocaine and crack cocaine possession were treated dramatically differently (they are still treated differently to this day, just not as much). Someone with five grams of crack cocaine automatically received a five year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Ten grams would get you a ten year mandatory minimum sentence. To receive the same sentences for possession of cocaine, you would have to be in possession of five hundred or a thousand grams, respectively. At the time this 100 : 1 ratio was supported by public fears about the addictiveness and violence associated with crack cocaine.
And yet, cocaine and crack cocaine are both just…cocaine. Certainly the way you administer it changes the intensity of its effects, but the chemical remains the same (for example, our test for cocaine works equally well for both forms so you can think of it as a crack cocaine drug test). The harsh sentencing for crack cocaine possession was also affecting the black community far more than other groups. On top of that, the severity of the sentencing was pushing a lot of people into the US prison system. The 12,000 prisoners who now could be eligible for sentence reductions make up about 6% of the prison population.
The sentence reductions are an application of the Fair Sentencing Act’s general reforms. The disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine sentencing is now 18 : 1 instead of 100 : 1. Those incarcerated for crack offenses will be eligible to have their sentences brought in line with the new rules by a federal judge.
While some Republican lawmakers have their reservations about the retroactive sentencing, and Congress could intervene between now and Nov. 1 when it goes into effect, it seems unlikely that they will. The Fair Sentencing Act was passed with bipartisan support, and will most likely by slow-walked by Attorney General Eric Holder, who would like the new rules applied to about half of the potentially eligible prisoners, those without weapons offenses or long criminal histories.