Federal Commission Decides to Make Fair Cocaine Sentencing Retroactive

When Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act last year, a deep inequality in penalties for federal drug offenses finally came to a halt. Since the late 1980s, when public awareness of crack cocaine became widespread, possession of a few grams of crack could lead to a five-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence, punishing a criminal defendant to the same extent as possession of half a kilogram of powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act changed sentencing guidelines to correct that 100-to-1 imbalance, and a person charged with crack possession must be convicted of possessing 28 grams to face that sentence. But decades of enforcing the punitive guideline put tens of thousands of Americans behind bars for personal drug use.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for criminal justice reform, was among many voices that called for retroactive application of the new guidelines to free individuals sentenced under penalties that it called "the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses." Others pointed out the racial dimensions of the imbalance: crack use was widely seen as a scourge of African American communities, while cocaine was a symbol of affluent excess. Four of every five defendants sentenced for crack possession were black.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this year, recounting his history as a federal drug crimes prosecutor and arguing that the sentencing policy had made public problems associated with crack use even worse due to criminalization and incarceration of addicts. The mother of a Mississippi man told the commission of her son's 42-year sentence as a first-time offender convicted of possession of less than two ounces of crack cocaine.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously in late June to retroactively apply the penalty reductions contained in the Fair Sentencing Act. This action could lead to the release of more than 12,000 federal prisoners nationwide by the end of this year. This amounts to nearly six percent of the federal prison population, and could produce a reduction of more than $200 million in federal expenditures over the next five years, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Sentencing Relief for Convicted Drug Offenders

The new crack sentencing guidelines will go into effect on November 1, 2011, and a variety of factors will go into release and sentence reduction eligibility determinations. The average sentence of a crack-related offense will be reduced by three years, but reductions will not be automatic. Over fifty percent of the federal prison population is incarcerated because of drug offenses, and associated weapons crimes or extensive criminal histories will disqualify many individuals.

Prisoners who want to be considered for crack sentencing reductions must submit a petition in federal court, and a federal sentencing judge will determine eligibility for a lower sentence and the extent to which a sentence will be lowered. The court must consider whether reducing the sentence will present a risk to public safety and make a complex analysis of criminal history scores based on aggravating circumstances and institutional adjustments.

After decades of relentless sentencing provisions, drug offenders should take notice of this recent development of saner policies. Regardless of a suspect, defendant or inmate's current status, a thorough understanding of current criminal law can provide surprising insights.

A Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney Can Explain the Implications of Drug-Related Charges

Individuals accused of possession crimes involving minor quantities of marijuana, meth, crack and other drugs may expect that the criminal consequences will be proportional to the offense. But regardless of the amount of drugs involved, an active criminal defense lawyer who will fight for the defendant's rights and future interests is extremely important.

Any possibility of avoiding a criminal conviction should be explored to avert the long-term effects of a criminal record. Voluntary participation in drug treatment programs can help those who plead or are found guilty seek to mitigate sentencing.

People facing charges of drug distribution or manufacture should act swiftly to learn about legal strategies for reducing charges and avoiding a conviction. A Baltimore drug crimes defense attorney can explain how a defendant's Constitutional rights protect against unlawful search and seizure, and discuss the potential for getting evidence suppressed, whether a case proceeds under state law or in the U.S. District Court District of Maryland.