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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.