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Many federal crack sentences are now eligible to be reduced

In a major victory for people accused of drug crimes, many people serving time for federal drug charges may soon be eligible for a reduced sentence thanks to a recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

In the 1980s, crack cocaine was a new drug on the streets of Pennsylvania. Crack was blamed for a spike in inner city crime rates. In 1986, Congress passed a federal law that increased the penalties for crack cocaine offenses.

As a result, the sentences for crack cocaine possession became much more severe than sentences for powder cocaine offenses. Critics of this policy, pointing to the statistic that crack cocaine sentences were roughly 100 times stiffer than sentences for powder cocaine, argued that the policy unfairly discriminated against the poor and in minority communities where crack cocaine was more popular than powder cocaine.

After years of debate, Congress finally reacted by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Fair Sentencing Act closed the gap between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. As a result, people who are convicted of crack cocaine offenses in the future will face reduced sentences. However, the U.S. Sentencing Commission needed to decide whether the change in the law should apply to people who have already been convicted of, and who are presently serving time for, crack cocaine offenses.

Late last month, the Sentencing Commission voted to apply the new law to people who are serving time for crack cocaine offenses. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 federal prisoners will be eligible for an average reduced sentence of three years. However, it is important to note that a reduced sentence is not automatic and people seeking a reduced sentence should work with a criminal defense attorney who can file the necessary requests with a court.

Some members of Congress are critical of the Sentencing Commission's new rule. However, the new rule will go into effect in November unless Congress passes a law to undo the rule change.

Source: The New York Times, "Thousands of Prison Terms in Crack Cases Could Be Eased," John Schwartz, 6/30/2011

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