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December 11, 2007 - The Sentencing Project (US)

United States Sentencing Commission Approves Crack Reform For Federal Prisoners

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The day after the Supreme Court affirmed a judge's decision to sentence below the guideline range based on the unfairness of the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission today voted to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment on crack cocaine offenses. The USSC's decision now makes an estimated 19,500 persons in prison eligible for a sentence reduction averaging more than two years. Releases are subject to judicial review and will be staggered over 30 years.

The Sentencing Project applauds the USSC for responding at this heightened time of public awareness about excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system.

"The Commission's decision marks an important moment not only for the 19,500 people retroactivity will impact, but for the justice system as a whole," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "Today's action, combined with the Court's decision yesterday, restores a measure of rationality to federal sentencing while also addressing the unconscionable racial disparities that the war on drugs has produced."

The Sentencing Project estimates that once the sentencing change is fully implemented, there will be a reduction of up to $1 billion in prison costs. Because African Americans comprise more than 80% of those incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses, the sentencing reform will also help reduce racial disparity in federal prisons.

The Commission sets the advisory guideline range that federal judges use when sentencing defendants. In May the Commission recommended statutory reforms and proposed to Congress an amendment to decrease the guideline offense level for crack cocaine offenses. The amendment went unchallenged by Congress and went into effect on November 1st. The Commission's action today makes that guideline change retroactive to persons sentenced prior to November 1st.

The guideline changes do not affect the mandatory minimum penalties that apply to crack cocaine, which can only be addressed through Congressional action.

"Justice demands that Congress take the next step and eliminate the harsh mandatory minimums for low-level crack cocaine offenses," said Mauer.

The Commission's vote comes a day after the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Kimbrough v. United States that a federal district judge's below-guideline sentencing decision based on the unfairness of the 100 to 1 quantity disparity between powder and crack cocaine was permissible.

In June, Sen. Joseph Biden introduced the Drug Sentencing Reform and Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, legislation which would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Biden's bill, S. 1711, aims to shift federal law enforcement's focus from street-level dealers towards high-level traffickers.

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