Commission votes to allow retroactive easing of crack cocaine sentences
By MARK SHERMAN
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to allow some 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocainced before the guidelines were changed differently from those sentenced after the change.
Inmate family representatives and other advocates had said a Supreme Court decision on Monday could only improve chances the commission would address the long-criticized disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Crack is predominantly used by blacks; powder cocaine, predominantly by whites.
The administration restated its opposition to the easing on Tuesday before the commission voted.
“Our position is clear,” said Attorney General Michael Mukasey at a news conference. “We oppose it.”
The attorney general said the convicted crack offenders were sentenced under an existing standard and to change that standard retroactively dismisses any mitigating factors the sentencing judge considered when deciding how long a prison term to set.
In addition, the release of inmates would cause problems for communities whose probation and supervisory systems are not ready to receive crack offenders, he said.
In two decisions Monday, the Supreme Court upheld judges who rejected federal sentencing guidelines as too harsh and imposed more lenient prison terms, including one for crack offenses.
In the crack case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion said Derrick Kimbrough’s 15-year sentence was acceptable, although guidelines called for 19 to 22 years. “In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the guidelines’ treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses,” Ginsburg said.
Kimbrough is black.
So are 86 percent of the 19,500 inmates who might see their prison terms for crack offenses reduced after the commission approved retroactive easing. By contrast, just over a quarter of those convicted of powder cocaine crimes last year were black.
The sentencing commission recently changed the guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for the two crimes. New guidelines took effect Nov. 1.
“The Kimbrough decision is a tremendous victory for all who believe that the crack and powder cocaine disparity is unjust,” said Mary Price, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Kimbrough’s case, though, did not present the ultimate fairness question. Congress wrote the harsher treatment for crack into a law that sets a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine or 100 times as much powder cocaine.
Seventy percent of crack defendants get the mandatory minimum.
Kimbrough is among the remaining 30 percent who, under the guidelines, are supposed to receive even more prison time for trafficking in more than 5 grams of crack.
Neither the court’s decision nor the commission’s guidelines affect the minimum sentences, which only Congress can alter.
In previous years, the sentencing commission reduced penalties for crimes involving marijuana, LSD and OxyContin, which are primarily committed by whites, and made those decisions retroactive.
On The Net:
Sentencing Commission — http://www.ussc.gov/index.html
Published in The Messenger 12.12.07