Eugene Richards, AP
Crack cocaine is seen in this file photo taken at the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1988.
Crack cocaine is seen in this file photo taken at the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1988. Eugene Richards, AP
People caught with crack cocaine now face reduced sentences, as courts implement new federal sentencing guidelines for the drug.
The new U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines that went into effect Thursday cut the sentence range for first-time offenders possessing 5 grams or more of crack cocaine to 51 to 63 months. The old range was 63 to 78 months.
The new range for first-time offenders possessing at least 50 grams is 97 to 121 months in prison, down from 121 to 151 months.
The disparity of the sentences for crack, a form of cocaine, and powdered cocaine possession has been a major issue for defendants for years, primarily because blacks have been disproportionately sentenced under the harsher crack penalties. Last year, more than four-fifths of crack cocaine offenders in federal courts were black.
The Sentencing Commission voted for the lower recommended sentence ranges in April. The recommendation went to Capitol Hill on May 1 and became effective after 180 days of congressional review.
Now the commission must decide whether to make the lower penalties retroactive for the 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced before the change. A hearing to decide the matter will be Nov. 13.
The disparity in sentences for those convicted under the crack and cocaine guidelines is staggering. Federal law sets a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine, but it would take 500 grams of cocaine powder to warrant the same sentence.
A commission analysis estimated that changing the crack guidelines would reduce the size of the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years. Such a reduction would result in savings of more than $87 million, according to The Sentencing Project, a private organization tracking the issue.
The Sentencing Commission is urging Congress to repeal the mandatory prison term for simple possession and increase the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger five-year and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms as a way to focus on major drug traffickers.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press