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AG Holder Backs Early Release for Crack Cocaine Prisoners

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #687)
Politics & Advocacy

In testimony before the US Sentencing Commission Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder gave his support to a proposal that could result in the early release of thousands of federal crack cocaine prisoners. The proposal would make retroactive last year's Fair Sentencing Act, which sharply reduced the disparities in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine offenses.

Attorney General Holder says yes to retroactivity only for some federal crack prisoners. (Image courtesy DOJ)
Under laws in effect since the crack panic of the mid-1980s, it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The Fairness in Sentencing Act reduced that 100:1 disparity to 18:1, providing sentencing relief to future crack defendants.

But that law did not provide relief for the nearly 12,000 people currently serving federal crack sentences under the old laws. Prisoners and their families, civil rights activists, and drug reformers have been calling on the Sentencing Commission to make the sentencing changes retroactive.

The harsh old crack laws have been especially brutal on black America. Although blacks make up less than half of all crack users, more than 80% of federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at black defendants, leading to charges of racism in the application of the law, if, arguably, not in its intent.

Holder told the commission that his experience as a federal prosecutor, federal judge, and now the country's top law enforcement officer, "compelled" him to seek to reduce disparities between crack offenders and powder cocaine offenders.

"There is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders," Holder said.

Holder recommended that the commission allow retroactively for only about 5,500 of the 12,000 federal crack prisoners, those without violent or extensive criminal records.

Also testifying before the commission was Marc Mauer, head of the Sentencing Project, a group that seeks reforms of harsh sentencing laws. Mauer said that if retroactivity was applied, the average crack offender would see a 37-month reduction in his sentence.

Retroactivity should be applied because there is "no meaningful pharmacological difference between the two drugs" and "large percentages" of low-level crack dealers are serving long sentences designed for serious traffickers.

Retroactivity could also begin to restore trust in the criminal justice in black America, Mauer said. "For many African Americans," Mauer said, "this fundamental unfairness has undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system."

The commission also received more than 37,000 letters and emails on the topic, the vast majority of them prisoners and their families supporting equality for crack and powder cocaine offenders and calling for retroactivity to be applied.

The Sentencing Commission is expected to vote later this month on whether to grant retroactivity under the Fair Sentencing Act. If it does, the action would become effective November 1. Then, prisoners or their attorneys could petition the sentencing judge for early release, or the judges or the director of the Bureau of Prisons could act unilaterally.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


sicntired (not verified)



You take everything Holder says and where is the justification for the 18-1?It isn't just the crack cocaine disparity that has the black population feeling persecuted unfairly.All drug laws come down on the other races when it is a known fact that white kids from suburbia do more dope than any ghetto kid can afford.Since the genie came out of the bottle in the 60's there have been two separate societies,each one not trusting the other and no one willing to learn the truth about our drug prohibition,where it comes from and why it was implemented in the first place.Many believe that the drug laws were implemented for health reasons but nothing could be further from the truth.There is so much misinformation coming from the ONDCP that it is said that the current crop of lower school kids are more afraid of marijuana than of heroin.What kind of message is that?The prohibitionists always claim any lessening of punishment for drugs sends the wrong message.I think it's time these people took a long look at the big picture.Drug use is more prevalent than ever.America has the highest drug use among it's people while they have the harshest drug laws in the free world.The American backed Mexican drug war is killing tens of thousands of Mexican citizens in their own homes.The guns used on both sides come from America and all the drugs are sold in America.With the exception of the last 100 years drugs have been used by a lot of people with far less damage than what we see now.At the start of the 20th century almost every product on the drug store shelves contained an amount of either opium or morphine and coca cola was the REAL thing.1% of the population was addicted to opiates.Today,people in real pain struggle to find a doctor willing to prescribe proper medication and 1 % of the population is addicted to opiates.Many of the current crop of drugs were made to try and bypass drug laws,with no success of any kind.If Mr.Holder really wants people to respect law and order tell him to stop sending heavily armed military style units into peoples neighbourhoods to try to bust a grow op.Stop seizing peoples property for drug crimes like they do in ricco cases.Take a look at Europe.The one country that has reduced it's drug use is Portugal,where all drugs are decriminalized.Of course that could never work here,right?

Tue, 06/07/2011 - 1:03am Permalink

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