[JURIST] US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] Wednesday testified [text, PDF] before the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] calling for the retroactive application of a new law bringing the sentences for crack cocaine more in line for those of powder cocaine. The USSC is considering retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials] signed into law [JURIST report] by President Barack Obama last year. Holder said that the Act “not only reduced the inappropriate 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses … it also strengthens the hand of law enforcement and includes tough new criminal penalties to mitigate the risks posed by our nation’s most serious, and most destructive, drug traffickers and violent offenders.” But he argued that more is necessary to ensure equal treatment under the law making it necessary to apply the new sentences retroactively, to prisoners currently serving time for crack cocaine offenses. Holder said:
President Obama and I, along with leaders across the Administration, understand how illegal drugs—including crack—ravage communities. Crack offenders—especially violent ones—should be punished. And the Justice Department will make every effort to prosecute them. However, as years of experience and study have shown, there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders—a position that Congress overwhelmingly supported with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act.
The USSC is considering reducing the sentences [WP report] of some currently incarcerated on crack cocaine convictions by an average of three years. That could mean the release of one out of every 18 federal prisoners or about 12,000.
The Fair Sentencing Act amended existing law to reduce the current sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. Under the existing 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 [materials]. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties.