Shorter Crack Cocaine Sentences Applied to Inmates by Panel

A U.S. commission voted to apply reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenses to those previously sent to prison, a decision that could affect about 12,000 inmates.

Today’s action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Washington is due to take effect in November, unless Congress votes to override it and President Barack Obama signs that measure into law. The administration has endorsed the retroactive application of the reduced penalties, except for offenders who possessed or used weapons in committing their crimes or have “significant” criminal histories.

“Justice demands this result,” said Ketanji Brown Jackson, the sentencing panel’s vice chairwoman. Commission members said the reduced sentences are fairer and also may reduce prison overcrowding.

Prisoners will be able to petition judges for a sentence reduction and must show they are not a risk to public safety, U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission chairwoman, said. As many as 2,000 inmates probably will be able to seek a reduction during the first year the new rules are in effect, she said.

On June 1, Attorney General Eric Holder told a sentencing commission hearing in Washington that retroactive application of the shorter sentences could affect about 12,000 inmates.

Signed Into Law

Obama last August signed a law reducing crack sentences after complaints that penalties were out of balance with those for powder cocaine offenses. Supporters of the change said that black suspects were more likely to be charged with crack violations and serve longer sentences. The law reduced the disparity in sentences from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

“We believe that the imprisonment terms of those sentenced pursuant to the old statutory disparity -- who are not considered dangerous drug offenders -- should be alleviated to the extent possible to reflect the new law,” Holder testified before the sentencing panel.

The law approved last year didn’t include a specific provision relating to whether it applied retroactively.

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