Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Retroactively, Panel Reduces Drug Sentences

Published: December 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — The agency that sets guidelines for federal prison sentences voted unanimously on Tuesday to lighten punishments retroactively for some crimes related to crack cocaine, a decision that could eventually affect about 19,500 inmates and mean freedom for some within months.

The 7-to-0 vote by the United States Sentencing Commission was intended to help narrow the stark disparity that has existed for two decades between sentences for crack cocaine and those linked to the powder form of the drug, a disparity written into law two decades ago when it was widely assumed that crack was more dangerous than the powdered drug.

Since then, experts have concluded that there are more similarities than differences, and many people involved in sentencing have lamented the fact that black people are disproportionately affected by crack-related sentences. Statistics show that about 85 percent of the federal inmates behind bars for crack offenses are black.

“At its core, this question is one of fairness,” said one commission member, Judge William K. Sessions III of the United States District Court in Vermont. “This is an historic day. This system of justice is, and must always be, colorblind.”

The decision — which does not affect mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress — will become effective on March 3, at which point many inmates will be eligible to petition a judge to be resentenced under the new guidelines. The delay will give prison administrators and other correctional administrators time to prepare for a surge of applications.

Hard numbers are elusive, but statistics kept by the commission suggest that, on average, an eligible prisoner might have his sentence reduced by 17 percent, and that about 3,800 inmates would be eligible but not assured of release in the next year. But, addressing concerns about public safety, commission members emphasized that judges, newly empowered by a pair of Supreme Court decisions on Monday, will have wide discretion over which inmates will be granted leniency.

Notwithstanding his own remark about the commission making history, Judge Sessions suggested, and the other commission members agreed, that it was up to Congress to rewrite what it did two decades ago. Reacting to images — or perhaps anecdotes — about the evils of crack, and the street crime it was presumed to stoke, the lawmakers enacted penalties that many have called draconian, treating crack-cocaine offenses far more harshly than ones involving powdered cocaine.

Several commission members said the perception over the years that crack-related prosecutions had affected black defendants and their relatives far more than white people was having a corrosive effect on the criminal justice system, influencing juries, potential witnesses and law enforcement officers as well as defendants.

The vote was followed by applause by relatives of prisoners who attended the session. But the decision to apply retroactivity does not mean a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” as one panel member put it.

In addition to the 19,500 prisoners who may become eligible for early release sooner or later, there are 16,000 to 17,000 people incarcerated for crack-related crimes who have virtually no hope of a break. Some of them were given the absolute minimum term in the first place, and so have nothing to gain. Other were arrested with huge amounts of crack, or deemed career offenders, and sentenced to long terms with no hope of leniency.

The Bush administration restated its opposition to making the lighter sentences retroactive. “Our position is clear,” Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Tuesday at a news conference.

That stance was repeated at the commission meeting by Kelli Ferry, an assistant United States attorney in Virginia who is an ex-officio member of the panel, asserting that the prospect of a large number of prisoners being released posed “significant safety risks for the communities to which they will be returned.”

Drug offenders make up a high percentage of the roughly 200,000 federal inmates. About 60,000 prisoners are released in a typical year, and some 63,000 new inmates take their place.

Cocaine-related offenses are covered under state as well as federal law. A typical prisoner in the federal system was a street-level trafficker — not a kingpin — who dealt in crack when there was little or no public tolerance for drug peddlers, even those with previously clean records.

Iralee Johnson of Orange, N.J., and the 16-year-old granddaughter she is raising, Secoya Jenkins, attended the hearing in the hope that the commission would give a break to Secoya’s mother, Nerika. She was convicted of conspiring to distribute crack in Philadelphia and has been in prison more than a decade.

Ms. Johnson blamed her daughter’s fall on “bad company” and said she had “learned her lesson,” after serving nearly 11 years. Her relatives said she was a first-time nonviolent offender who had just earned an associate college degree.

Because Congress has declined to take up legislation that would reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum prison terms for drug offenses, the sentencing commission can only offer leniency administratively, without setting aside the mandatory minimum terms imposed by Congress.

The commission put new guidelines into effect on Nov. 1, after a 180-day waiting period expired without Congress doing anything to stop them. But the effects were relatively modest: reducing the average sentence for crack possession to 8 years 10 months from 10 years 1 month, for instance.

One commission member, Judge Ruben Castillo of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, reminded the audience that the commission first recommended in 1995 that the sentencing disparity involving crack and powdered cocaine be erased in the absence of any data that it made sense.

“No one has come before us to justify the 100-to-1 ratio,” Judge Castillo said, referring to a provision of federal law that imposes the same 10-year minimum sentence for possessing 50 grams of crack and for possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was pleased with the commission’s action.

“Nearly 20,000 nonviolent, low-level drug offenders will be eligible for a reduction in the excessive prison terms they received in the past because of the unacceptable disparity in the sentencing guidelines between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Those who break the law deserve to be punished, but our system says that punishment must be proportionate and fair. The current sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is neither.”

The commission chairman, Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, reflected at Tuesday’s meeting on the perspective he has acquired in 25 years on the bench. “I didn’t think sentencing would be as difficult as it is when you actually have to do it,” he said.


Anonymous said...


as we all know, having drugs is a felon or a disdeamonor charge but should you spend your whole life behind bars for a material object? I agree with the guideline to give fewer years to those that are charged & also free those behind bars if you spent more then 10 years. yes , any type of drug is lethal and could be a danger to society but to me I feel that you should be charged equally. when I say that I mean , (if I'm wrong please correct me mr. brown) if your caught with marijuana your gonna spend a nightin jail and be fine with a ticket.. if you can get off the boat so easy then how come you can't do the same with crack cocaine.. aren't they both drugs?! aren't they both a danger to society?!

Anonymous said...

I think people carrying drugs shouldn't be put in jail, but it depends how old they are. If they are at the legal age to carry/take drugs, then so be it. However, it also depends what kinds of drugs they are carrying, esp. if they sell it in the public. I still feel like they shouldn't get arrested for that. Going to jail will definitely ruin your life 'record'.

manpreet kaur said...

About 19,500 people, that could get freedom with a months is a shocking number. I agree with, Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, “I didn’t think sentencing would be as difficult as it is when you actually have to do it,” he said.It is a hard decision indeed. Giving a huge number of people freedom all at once.
"Statistics show that about 85 percent of the federal inmates behind bars for crack offenses are black." I thougt, this statement for put in the article to show two sides of the story.

Anonymous said...

Carrying drugs in the United States in illegal. I am talkin about marijuana, cocaine, etc. It's the law that if you are caught with drugs that are not allowed in the united states, you go straight to jail. I agree with Courtney that having drugs is a felon. I also agree that you should be charged if you are found with drugs. But it depends on what drug you have also.

-Simran kaur

M. Harmon said...

I disagree with Tiffany 100%. What do you mean "if they are at the legal age to carry/take drugs"? Drugs are illegal. Theres no legal age to carry them. I agree with what Courteney is saying. A drug is a drug. No matter what youre using or selling, everyone should get the same punishment. Just because one is more harmful to your body than the other doesnt mean anything. Theyre all illegal and everyone who is involved with them should be treated the same way.

Anonymous said...

Carrying drugs in my opinion is wrong and is a felon. No one should be carrying drugs, it is illegal and anyone who is caught dealing with drugs should be put to jail with no questions asked.
"The commission chairman, Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, reflected at Tuesday’s meeting on the perspective he has acquired in 25 years on the bench. “I didn’t think sentencing would be as difficult as it is when you actually have to do it,” he said."
And i believe that is true, but it is true with everything. You can never know how difficult something is until you experienced it yourself.

-Anta R.

Anonymous said...

I agree with every one. Drugs are illegal in America. But I don't thing people should serve life for it. When in other places its legal there and the people are fine. Like Jamaica. So they should not serve life.


Anonymous said...

I don't think people should go to jail for drugs,because many use it for all different types of reason some for health because they feel it can make you better also they shouldn't serve life for thing like that. People should serve jail for killing ,murders,robbery,rape and many more drug I don't see that had a life sentence because there not doing harm there just trying to make money to provide.
Kristal Atchsion

Anonymous said...

Kristen Fitz

I think people should go to jail for it but it should be set and automatically go to jail depending on the drug and the amount the have.

Anonymous said...

Just because it is a “Law” doesn’t make it right; the term “right” invokes different meanings for different people. Much discussion needs to be done in this area.
The social equation in human history has this variable called “control,” this variable of control manifest in religious, economic, sexual and political, etc. activities among humans. God forbid- any “true” freedom for humans.

We missed the point on drugs. We ought to ask ”why would someone take drugs?” Our lives are fun, enjoyable right? What is missing in a person who opts to take drugs?
Secondly- our economical model promotes drug usage. If drugs were not profitable – who would make them or sell them? Also, its profitable for law enforcement and government agencies. It is easier to blame a sub-set of a society for your troubles. Hitler was good at that- remember?
So we should I suggest to treat the users of drugs as a medical / psychological problem – not a criminal problem.

Next legalize drugs in U.S., and then tax them. To use drugs or not is a family issues, don’t relegate the family’s functions- or better obligation - to the government or worst think that a government body can legalize morality. This is the function of Churches and schools.
Some areas to think about people, the trouble has gone on for so long it’s become person to many than an actually problem to fix.

Plato Cop

Anonymous said...

J Dilan

I agree with Megan when she says that drugs are drugs no matter what age you are. I don’t understand when people say that it depends on the age of the person with drugs. What the kids with the drugs shouldn’t get as much time as the older people with drugs that’s crazy. I think that people who are caught with drugs should have a mandatory sentence just like every one else. The all should do at the minimum four years or something like that in jail. People make decisions and should be able to handle the outcome of their action.

Alyssa Faller said...

I agree with Courteney Richardson. I think that people who are found with these kinds of drugs should be put to jail. But the part that i think should be worsen is how long they stay. The people who work in this kind of "business" need to understand that it's illegal. No matter how much they money they make, or how they "don't do it to much", doesn't make a difference. Someone who is caught with these kinds of drugs needs to put away. But at the same time you have a problem in society. You have the rich people who can afford lawyers to get their spoiled kids out of trouble, and you have the poor people who would be in jail for a long time. To me, there should be no difference. To me, I look at these cases and see them all as the same. That should be how all of the cases are tried.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the board for giving fewer years for the crack cociane possesion law because I feel a drug is a drug no matter its form or state people use it for money or the High. so no one drug should b held to a lower standard than another. But on the other hand we are talking about 10,000 to 20,000 people exspected to be released in a matter of months how do u think this is going to effect our society's. these are people who spent the last 3 to 5 yrs in jail how would they addapt to life now being that they have felonys on there record how would they be able to provide money for themselves without resorting to crime and drug usage?

Jamaal adams