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AG Holder urges cocaine sentencing disparity reform

[JURIST] US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] urged sentencing reform [transcript text] for crack cocaine Wednesday, calling for a review of disparities between sentencing guidelines for powder and crack. Addressing a symposium on federal sentencing policy hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus and Harvard Law School's Race and Justice Institute [advocacy websites], Holder said that a "thorough review" of sentencing reform was necessary due to the "unwarranted" disparities between punishments for different forms of cocaine. The review, Holder maintained, should consider the role of mandatory minimums, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] charging and sentencing policies, incarceration alternatives, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. Citing public trust and confidence in the justice system, Holder stated that unfairness undermines the process and that:

There is no tension between a sentencing scheme that is effective and fair and one that is tough and equitable. We must work toward these twin goals and we must do so now. Too much time has passed, too many people have been treated in a disparate manner, and too many of our citizens have come to have doubts about our criminal justice system. ... We must break out of the old and tired partisan stances that have stood in the way of needed progress and reform. We have a moment in time that must be seized in order to insure that all of our citizens are treated in a way that is consistent with the ideals embodied in our founding documents. This Department of Justice is prepared to act.

The symposium marked the 25th anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 [USSC backgrounder, PDF], which authorizes the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] to retroactively apply amendments to Federal Sentencing Guidelines [USSC materials] and reserves Congressional power to "modify or disapprove" of the commission's amendments. The final decision whether to reduce a crack cocaine offender's sentence rests with a federal sentencing judge.

Crack cocaine sentencing policies have raised issues in the past about a disparate impact on African American offenders. In April, other DOJ officials said Congress should eliminate the sentencing disparities [JURIST report] between crimes committed involving crack and powder cocaine during a hearing [materials] of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs [official website]. In April 2008, a study by the USSC reported [study, PDF; JURIST report] that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses have had their sentences reduced under an amendment to sentencing guidelines. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties [press release]. The amendment was intended to reduce the disparity between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine sentences.

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