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November 1, 2007 - Sentencing Project (US)

Sentencing Commission Reduces Penalties for Crack Cocaine Offense

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At a time of growing national concern about unequal treatment within the justice system, the United States Sentencing Commission today lowered the Guideline sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, likely impacting 3,500 federally sentenced defendants each year. Commission concerns about the excessive penalty structure for crack cocaine offenses prompted the change that on average will reduce defendants' sentences by 15 months.

The Commission sets an advisory guideline range that federal judges use when sentencing defendants. Under the old range, average sentences for crack cocaine offenses were 121 months. Now the estimated average sentence will be 106 months.

In May the Commission recommended statutory reforms and proposed to Congress the amendment to decrease the guideline offense level for crack cocaine offenses.

The amendment went unchallenged by Congress and therefore takes effect today. According to Commission analysis, the modification would reduce the size of the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years. Such a reduction would result in savings of over $87 million, according to The Sentencing Project.

This change, however, only addresses one aspect of the controversy surrounding crack cocaine sentencing. The Commission is currently considering whether to apply the amendment retroactively -- a move that would make approximately 19,500 persons in prison eligible for a reduced sentence.

The Commission will hear testimony on this issue at a Nov. 13 public hearing at which I will testify in favor of retroactivity.

In a submission to the Commission, The Sentencing Project argues that "the Commission, courts, and commentators all have recognized the undue disparity caused by the Guidelines since their inception. Thus, defendants who were incarcerated when the problems with the crack Guidelines first became evident should also be granted an opportunity to pursue the benefit of this long overdue remedy."

The new policy comes on the heels of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kimbrough v. the United States. The high court is being asked to uphold the authority of federal judges to depart from the sentencing guidelines in crack cocaine cases when they disagree with sentencing policy. Furthermore, bipartisan reform legislation is pending in Congress and hearings addressing the statutory mandatory minimum sentences are expected this fall.

Use the following links to read The Sentencing Project's letter to the Commission urging retroactivity, and learn more about the momentum to end the sentencing disparity at:


Marc Mauer, Director
The Sentencing Project
514 10th Street NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC | 20004

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