Hot debate on proposed cut in crack sentences

Officials from the Justice Department are unhappy with a proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would allow nearly 20,000 inmates incarcerated on crack cocaine convictions to apply for an earlier release date. The move could free as many as 2,000 people by the end of the year, according to some Justice Department estimates.

Speaking at a hearing yesterday, Charlotte, N.C.-based U.S. Attorney Gretchen C.F. Shappert blasted the plan, saying the harm to neighborhoods struggling to overcome drug-fueled crime “will be swift, it will be sudden and, in my opinion, irreversible,” according to the Associated Press.

“My concern is about the future and about the unforeseen consequences of releasing such large numbers of convicted drug offenders into vulnerable communities in a relatively short period of time,” Shappert said, according to an account in The Washington Post.

But not all the commissioners were swayed by Shappert’s comments.

According to the Post, commissioner Beryl A. Howell said he was troubled by a Nov. 1 Justice Department letter submitted to the commission that claimed the move would means tens of thousand inmates would be freed early.

“The retroactive application of the crack amendment alone would require new sentences in approximately 20,000 cases, equivalent to more than 25 % of all federal sentencings in 2006 and approximately the same as all of the crack sentences imposed during FY
2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 combined,” the letter stated. (See the letter, a PDF file, on the Commission’s website here).

“That is totally wrong,” Howell told Shappert, adding that many of those who request early release would be denied, particularly if they had been violent offenders.

The commission meets today, but a vote on the retroactive sentencing guideline changes is unlikely today, and could come as late as January. Earlier this month new prospective sentencing guidelines were implemented cutting the sentences for crack cocaine offenses in an effort to cut the disparity in sentences between cases of crack and powder cocaine possession.

Written public comments on the retroactive proposal can be found here on the Commission’s website.

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