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DOJ backs retroactive reduction of crack sentences

The Obama administration is urging the U.S. Sentencing Commission to revise its guidelines to retroactively apply a 2010 law cutting the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

If adopted, the proposal would allow more than 5,000 inmates imprisoned for crack offenses to seek an earlier release.

Earlier this year, the commission amended federal sentencing guidelines covering sentences for crack cocaine to comply with the Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed into law last year and cut the disparity between federal sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

Attorney General Eric Holder praised the law, which narrowed the crack-powder sentencing disparity from 100 to 1 to about 18 to 1, but added: “I believe — and the administration’s viewpoint is that — we have more to do.”

“Achieving (the law’s) central goals of promoting public safety and public trust — and ensuring a fair and effective criminal justice system — requires the retroactive application of its guideline amendment,” Holder said.

Holder acknowledged the damage drugs including crack do to American communities, and pointed out that dangerous offenders as well as recidivists would not be eligible for retroactively reduced sentences under the administration’s proposal.

“The administration’s suggested approach to retroactivity of the amendment recognizes Congressional intent in the Fair Sentencing Act to differentiate dangerous and violent drug offenders and ensure that their sentences are no less than those originally set,” Holder said. “However, we believe that the imprisonment terms of those sentenced pursuant to the old statutory disparity — who are not considered dangerous drug offenders — should be alleviated to the extent possible to reflect the new law.”

Some lawmakers criticized the proposal. House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement that he was “disappointed by the Obama administration’s position supporting the release of dangerous drug offenders,” and that Congress had no intention of applying the law retroactively.

“It shows that they are more concerned with the wellbeing of criminals than with the safety of our communities,” Smith said. “This sends a dangerous message to criminals and would-be drug offenders that Congress doesn’t take drug crimes seriously.”

But Holder said that recent studies following the commission’s 2008 decision to apply retroactively an amendment that reduced the base offense level for crack by two levels — known as the “crack minus two” amendment — actually lowered the rate of recidivism.

He called the decision to seek retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act a “deeply personal” one.

“While serving on the bench, here in Washington, D.C., in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I saw the devastating effects of illegal drugs on families, communities and individual lives,” Holder said. “(But) I also saw that our federal crack sentencing laws (were) not perceived as fair and our law enforcement efforts suffered as a result.”


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