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U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Ruling May Let Crack Dealers Out Early

Just after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (7-2) Monday that federal judges can use their discretion when giving shorter prison sentences in order to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) decided today (Dec 12) to make the new sentencing laws retroactive. Street pharmacists and social activists have been reporting racial injustice since 1986 and 1988 when a federal sentencing law created a 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in order to activate certain mandatory minimum sentences for dealing and possession. Federal law required a crack dealer (mostly African Americans) to serve a minimum of five years in prison for selling 5 grams of crack cocaine while a powder cocaine dealer would have to sell 500 grams to trigger the same sentence. As of November 1, first-time offenders caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine will receive 51 to 63 months, whereas the old law mandated 63 to 78 months and first-time offenders possessing 50 grams now get 97 to 121 months, down from 121 to 151 months.According to the Commission, approximately 86 percent of inmates affected by the new law are black, 94 percent are men. The Commission’s decision to make the new law retroactive affects almost 19,500 prisoners. The mandatory crack cocaine sentencing laws were created based upon what the Sentencing Project believes was sensationalized portrayals of crack, stating that it is a violence-inducing drug that was 50 times more addictive. The Sentencing Project reports, in fact, that the physiological effects of all types of cocaine are the same.The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that thousands of offenders who were harshly sentenced can now have their case reviewed in court. Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said that the USSC’s decision “to apply the guidelines retroactively means justice for offenders sentenced under the previous guidelines, who may no longer have to serve more time than required by law.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in Kimbrough v. U.S, which centered around Derrick Kimbrough’s 15-year sentence for distributing 50 grams of crack cocaine when the sentencing guidelines mandated 19-22 year, showed that judges can disagree with the 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine by sentencing offenders below the guidelines.  Yaminah Ahmad is an editor and freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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