Yesterday the U.S. Sentencing Commission made its new reduced crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive, clearing the way for more roughly 19,500 federal inmates doing time for offenses involving crack cocaine to petition for an earlier release date. Under the new rules, more than 3,000 prisoners could request a sentence change that would allow them to be released before the end of 2008, according to the Washington Post.
The unanimous vote yesterday afternoon came on the heels of Monday’s Supreme Court decisions giving district court judges the discretion to dip below the federal sentencing guidelines when sentencing defendants. One case dealt specifically with the former 100-to-1 crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing ratio originally set by the commission. The commission eased that ratio with a rule change that went into effect Nov. 1. It will now be applied retroactively starting March 3, 2008.
The commission was careful to point out that the vote will not cause prison doors to swing open as floods of inmates go free. From the commission’s announcement:
“Not every crack cocaine offender will be eligible for a lower sentence under the decision. A Federal sentencing judge will make the final determination of whether an offender is eligible for a lower sentence and how much that sentence should be lowered. That determination will be made only after consideration of many factors, including the Commission’s direction to consider whether lowering the offender’s sentence would pose a danger to public safety. In addition, the overall impact is anticipated to occur incrementally over approximately 30 years, due to the limited nature of the guideline amendment and the fact that many crack cocaine offenders will still be required under Federal law to serve mandatory five- or ten-year sentences because of the amount of crack involved in their offense.”
The commission also explained its thought process a bit, and stressed that the move was to ease the disparities between sentences as a matter of “fundamental fairness” saying:
“The Commission considered a number of factors during its deliberations, including the purpose for lowering crack cocaine sentences, the limit on any reduction allowed by the amendment, whether it would be difficult for the courts to apply the reduction, and whether making the amendment retroactive would raise public safety concerns or cause unwarranted sentencing disparity in the federal system. Ultimately, the Commission determined that the statutory purposes of sentencing are best served by retroactive application of the amendment. Mindful of public safety and judicial resource concerns, the Commission today issued direction to the courts on the limited nature of this and all other retroactive amendments and on the need to consider public safety in each case. The Commission delayed the effective date of its decision on retroactivity in order to give the courts sufficient time to prepare for and process these cases.”