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Thousands of Prisoners Now Eligible to Receive Fairer Sentences

After 17 years advocating for fairness in federal drug laws, civil rights groups cheer decision to reduce racial disparities in drug sentencing.

  • Molly Alarcon
July 1, 2011

The United States Senten­cing Commis­sion voted unan­im­ously yester­day to reduce racial dispar­it­ies in drug senten­cing and bring fair­ness to the nation’s federal drug laws. The vote will apply the Fair Senten­cing Act of 2010, which reduced dispar­it­ies in senten­cing for powder vs. crack cocaine offenses, retro­act­ively to people currently incar­cer­ated for those offenses. Now, those convicted under the old, harsher laws can peti­tion a judge to adjust their sentence accord­ing to the new, fairer guidelines.

In a bipar­tisan effort, and after 17 years of advocacy by civil rights groups, includ­ing the Bren­nan Center, Congress passed the Fair Senten­cing Act of 2010 to rectify a severe dispar­ity in cocaine senten­cing laws. The now infam­ous 100-to-1 senten­cing dispar­ity, where an offender could have 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trig­ger the same mandat­ory minimum sentence, had harm­ful racial implic­a­tions. The old laws put thou­sands of African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos in prison for longer sentences for crimes involving relat­ively smal­ler amounts of crack cocaine, a dispar­ity that exists in other areas of the federal crim­inal justice system as well. The Fair Senten­cing Act ameli­or­ated this 100-to-1 dispar­ity, but did not elim­in­ate it. Crack offenses are still treated more harshly, but the ratio has been reduced signi­fic­antly to 18-to-1.

The U.S. Senten­cing Commis­sion’s decision to allow the new law to apply retro­act­ively to current pris­on­ers will go a long way toward recti­fy­ing the injustice of the old law. Of the approx­im­ately 12,000 current pris­on­ers eligible for sentence reduc­tion come Novem­ber 1, 2011 (when the retro­activ­ity provi­sion takes effect), 85 percent are African Amer­ican. Reprieve is not guar­an­teed for those indi­vidu­als: each must peti­tion a judge to reduce their sentence, and the judge must consider the public safety implic­a­tions of releas­ing each pris­oner on an indi­vidual basis.

Nonethe­less, the Senten­cing Commis­sion’s vote was consist­ent with the desires of Congress — and all of the advoc­ates who worked to pass the Fair Senten­cing Act — to see fair­ness restored to federal drug senten­cing laws.