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US Sentencing Commission reduces crack cocaine sentences

The US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] released new guidelines [materials] Tuesday that will reduce the federal minimum sentencing guidelines for those convicted on charges related to crack cocaine. They also published a 645-page report assessing the impact of statutory minimum sentences on federal sentencing [press release, PDF], specifically targeting those that the commission finds to be too severe and applied too broadly. The new guidelines, which go into effect Tuesday, are estimated to reduce the sentences of approximately 12,000 inmates [Birmingham News report] and will address the issue of overcrowded prisons systems [JURIST news archive]. With hopes of the changes rendering a more cost effective and sensible justice system, each case will be reviewed and ultimately presented to a judge for a final determination, who may also consider whether the prisoner is a danger to the public. Last year, Congress requested that the USSC adjust their guidelines pertaining to the amount of crack cocaine that would trigger sentencing to be comparable to the amount required for the form of powdered cocaine. The USSC report was also undertaken in light of a 2005 US Supreme Court [official website] decision, Booker v. United States [JURIST report], which rendered federal sentencing guidelines to be advisory. Federal sentencing guidelines are meant to provide a suggested sentencing range for judges to consider if they choose not to impose the mandatory minimum sentence by considering seriousness of the offense and the defendant's criminal history.

In June, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] urged the USSC to apply the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials] retroactively [JURIST report]. He argued "there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders." Under a law passed in 1986, an individual possessing five grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory five-year prison sentence, while an individual possessing powder cocaine would need to have 100 times that amount to receive the same sentence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] praised [press release] the bill's passage, stating that the old law also created a racial disparity, with African Americans comprising 79.8 percent of all offenders sentenced for crack cocaine violations. In April 2008, a study released by the USSC reported that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced [JURIST report] under an amendment to the Federal 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.

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