Crack Sentencing Guidelines Revisited

by Molly Kenney

Amended sentencing guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission may become retroactive, allowing the release of thousands of drug offenders, says The Washington Post. U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines established in the spring of this year took effect November 1st, and now an independent panel is considering if the guidelines should be retroactive.

The new sentencing regulations come closer to closing the gap between sentences for powder and crack cocaine — a disparity widely criticized as discriminatory — by making sentences for crack cocaine more lenient. While powder cocaine guidelines remain the same, the sentencing change will drastically affect the prison time served by crack offenders, a group that's predominantly made up of black men.

If the panel votes to make the guidelines retroactive, inmates will have their sentences reduced and be considered for release. Almost 20,000 inmates could have their sentences reduced, and nearly 4,000 could be released before 2009. That group of inmates is 86 percent African-American.

The panel met at Georgetown University this week to hear public comments about rolling back those sentences.

With the War on Drugs raging since the Reagan era, drug convictions have played a major role in the prison population increase from 250,000 in the mid-1970s to over 2 million today. Laws and sentencing regulations like the crack/powder cocaine distinction have compounded the disparity between minorities serving time on drug charges and whites found guilty of similar crimes. The change in the guidelines is an important step toward equality (although with crack sentences reduced about 20 percent, only a small one), and the retroactive application of the guidelines is only a logical and fair step.

But releasing thousands of drug offenders, ill-prepared for entrance back into society (thanks to U.S. prisons' disregard of rehabilitation as “so 1960’s"), may not make voters and tough-on-crime politicians too happy. If the new sentencing guidelines are made retroactive, thousands of offenders will get the equality under the law that they deserve. Also, hopefully, federal funding for community rehabilitation and re-entry programs will follow in response to this group’s needs, ameliorating community concern in the process. In the meantime, we’ll stand by for the Supreme Court’s decision in Kimbrough v. U.S, (for more, please see: "The Court on Crack") argued in October, and root for another step toward rationality and away from injustice.

(The photo of crack cocaine is from the Drug Enforcement Administration — DEA — and is in the public domain.)

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