Nearly 2,000 federal prisoners will be eligible for early release as result of a bill that changes the sentencing for crack cocaine to be closer to the penalties for powdered cocaine.
The Fair Sentencing Act, which goes into effect today, Nov. 1, passed Congress and was signed into law last year by President Obama. It was enacted to end the practice of stiffer sentences for people caught selling crack as compared to those caught selling powdered cocaine.
Officials estimate about 12,000 inmates could eventually benefit.
Critics argued for years the crack cocaine laws overwhelmingly discriminated against African American defendants. The fact that Black defendants were disproportionately subject to more severe penalties helped advocates push for reform.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 79 percent of the people sentenced for selling crack in 2010 were African American. By comparison, Black defendants made up about 27 percent of those sentenced for selling powdered cocaine.
"Beginning today, thousands of individuals across the country will get another shot at justice," said Julie Stewart, president of the national nonprofit organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMN), in a statement. "These people were forced to serve excessive sentences under a scheme Congress admitted was fundamentally flawed, but, today, they can ask for long overdue relief," added Stewart.
Policy experts and public defense attorneys agree.
They note the old system was designed in response to the panic and "war on drugs" over the crack epidemic thought to be sweeping the country during the 1980s.
Steven Belenko, a professor at Temple University who teaches drug policy, told The Morning Call the laws in the 1980s "were enacted in a climate of fear and lots of media attention about how crack was affecting our communities."
Over the years the sentencing process reflected the false assumption that crack was a more potent, more harmful drug than powdered cocaine. But public defenders and experts note the difference between the two is like water and ice, they're essentially the same substance.
Prior to last year the penalties for selling crack were 100 times more severe than those for selling powdered cocaine. A dealer convicted of selling 5 grams of crack received the same mandatory five-year sentence as a person who sold 500 grams of cocaine.
Under the new measure, the law now requires 28 and 280 grams to trigger the mandatory minimums, rather than the 5 grams for a five-year mandatory sentence, and 50 grams for a 10-year sentence.
When the law was signed last year it only applied to those sentenced after Aug. 3, 2010.
However in June, the U.S. Sentencing Commission took the advice from Congress and voted to make the reduced guideline penalties for crack offenses retroactive. Those already serving prison sentences under the old crack guidelines are now eligible to seek sentence reductions in court.
The move by the commission was made in part by the demands of defense attorneys, drug experts, groups like FAMN, and activists and family members of those behind bars.
The sentencing commission notes the average sentence reduction is expected to be 37 months, and the average sentence, even after a reduction will be 10 years.
In cases where the defendant has served the maximum sentence under the new guidelines, he or she will be released as soon as possible.
Knocking off years after a federal prison sentence is a tremendous reprieve for clients, say defense attorneys, who note many of their clients were not career criminals or large-scale dealers. It's a chance to restart and grow from a mistake for many, they add.
The effect of the change will largely be spread out over the next several years.
Meanwhile a spokesperson with the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that officials had already received hundreds of orders for early release from judges nationwide.
For example in San Antonio, Texas, the federal public defender's office had about 15 to 20 immediate release cases. In St. Louis, one public defender's office reviewed a list of 400 people who might be affected and ultimately submitted between 30 and 50 petitions asking for immediate release. In the eastern district of Virginia, which has the highest number of affected inmates anywhere in the country, a judge signed off approximately 75 people, reports indicate. And In Pennsylvania more than 500 people in federal prison could be released early and about 50 across the state have become eligible for immediate release.
For detailed information about the new law read here.
Photo: James V. Taylor poses for a photo in his home Sept. 1, 2010, in Park Hills, Mo. Police found such a small amount of crack cocaine in Taylor's car that investigators described it as un-weighable, but it was enough for a 15-year prison sentence in Missouri, where the courts make an enormous distinction between crack and powder cocaine. Taylor is now out on parole after serving four years of the sentence. (Jeff Roberson/AP)