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April 25, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)

Report: Sentences Reduced For 3,000 Cocaine Inmates

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some 3,000 inmates convicted on crack cocaine charges have had their prison sentences reduced since the federal government eased penalties for drug crimes that mostly involved blacks, said a federal Sentencing Commission study released on Thursday.

In December, the commission voted to ease the way courts meted out penalties for drug crimes to address disparities in the treatment of crack-related crimes compared with those involving powdered cocaine.

Four out of five crack cocaine defendants are black, and most powder cocaine convictions involve whites.

Since March 3, when new federal sentencing guidelines went into effect, 3,647 crack cocaine offenders had applied for early release.

The study said that federal judges nationwide had agreed to reduce prison sentences for 3,075 inmates.

About 1,600 federal inmates were eligible for immediate release, but the study said it was not clear how many offenders had been actually been freed.

Black inmates accounted for 84 percent of those given less prison time, bolstering the commission's view that the former guidelines had created a racial disparity because of the way cocaine offenders were sentenced.

The new sentencing guidelines, which took effect last month, allowed some 20,000 inmates convicted on crack cocaine charges to seek retroactive reductions in their prison time.

Seeking to minimize the early releases, the Justice Department had unsuccessfully asked Congress to reduce sentences only for first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Prosecutors are concerned that the new guidelines will result in the release of thousands of violent criminals.

The report issued on Thursday showed that 30 percent of crack offenders whose sentences were reduced were minor or first-time criminals, and 9 percent of those whose sentences were shortened were violent or repeat offenders.

The commission's report looked at applications in 79 federal court districts between March 3 and April 14.

It offered no conclusions or commentary about its findings.

The findings will be updated every four to five weeks, a commission official said.

The full report: Data on Retroactive Application of the Crack Cocaine Amendment (pdf), from the United States Sentencing Commission, 4/14/08

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