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June 2011
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US Sentencing Commission Votes to Make Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Reforms Retroactive

Press release from Drug Policy Alliance:

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to provide retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed last year and narrowed a decades-old disparity in federal sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The Commission’s decision to apply the sentencing guideline changes retroactive could benefit as many as 12,000 people in federal prison who could be released early, saving taxpayers as much as $240 million over the next 30 years. The Commission’s commitment to reforming this egregious practice is consistent with its history.

“Since 1995, the US Sentencing Commission has, in four reports to Congress, requested that Congress raise the threshold quantities of crack that trigger mandatory minimums in order to ease the unconscionable racial disparities in sentencing,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, who testified in front of the Commission on June 1, 2011 in support of retroactivity. “This vote to provide retroactive relief to the thousands of defendants whose sentences the Commission has consistently condemned for the past seventeen years.”

The Commission received more than 43,000 pieces of mail urging them to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively to alleviate overcrowding in the Bureau of Prisons – currently operating at 140% capacity, and to relieve the unwarranted racial disparities in federal sentencing that has led civil rights leaders, criminologists, elected officials, and whole communities to criticize the criminal justice system. Some Republican members in the House and Senate opposed retroactivity, however, setting up a possible fight over the issue in Congress.

The historic bipartisan passage of the Fair Sentencing Act was an acknowledgement by Congress of the racial disparities that grew out of the old law. Advocates argued that a decision to not apply the law retroactively would continue an openly unequal practice.

“Imagine that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had upheld segregation in existing schools and only mandated integration for new schools being built,” Tyler added. “Without retroactivity, that’s exactly what would happen to the Fair Sentencing Act. The Commission should be lauded for their commitment to ensuring racial justice and fairness in the federal system.”

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It’s still only a step, but an important one.

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