Crack Sentencing Reform Could Free Thousands

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering whether to reduce the federal prison sentences of thousands of people in jail for crack cocaine offenses. Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, is pushing for retroactive resentencing.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

How big of a difference does three weeks make?

Well, three weeks ago, federal sentences for crack cocaine were much tougher. Then, new guidelines from the U.S. Sentencing Commission took effect, bringing the penalties more in line with what some advocates say is fair. But what about people already serving their sentences? Are those too lengthy?

Well, the commission is now considering whether to reduce prison terms for thousands of people in jail for crack cocaine offenses.

Later on the show, we'll speak with someone who opposes retroactive resentencing.

But first, Mark Mauer. He's executive director of the Sentencing Project and he thinks that convicts already serving sentences should get theirs reduced, which means some would be let out of jail.

Welcome.

Mr. MARK MAUER (Executive Director, The Sentencing Project): Hi. Thanks. Good to be here.

CHIDEYA: So, explain this. A person arrested for crack cocaine offense on October 31st, a federal offense, would get a different sentence from someone who got theirs on November 1st?

Mr. MAUER: Exactly. You know, the crack cocaine laws go back to the mid-1980s and punish crack cocaine offenses far more harshly than powder cocaine. And the U.S. Sentencing Commission, recognizing this disparity, has modified the sentences somewhat, but for people sentenced as November 1st.

So, essentially, someone who is sentenced on October 31st might have gotten a 10-year sentence for crack offense. A similar person sentenced on November 1st is now getting roughly a nine-year sentence. And the question is, is there any justification for making those different or should we make it retroactive to people who've already been sentenced and are sitting in prison right now.

CHIDEYA: As part of this whole debate over crack and powder cocaine, these reduced sentences or the reduced guidelines would still have much higher penalties for crack cocaine, correct?

Mr. MAUER: Far higher. One quick example. There's a guy in prison right now by the name of Willie Mays Aikens. He's a former baseball star for the Kansas City Royals, played in the World Series, subsequently became addicted to drugs and started selling drugs and sold to an undercover agent. He was convicted of a crack cocaine offense and is in the middle of doing about a 20-year sentence. If this proposal goes through, to make it retroactive, he'll have about three years, cut-off in his sentence. He'll still do 17 o 18 years. If he'd been convicted of selling powder cocaine, he would have gotten a sentence about two and a half years only. That's the magnitude of the difference we're looking at.

CHIDEYA: So the Sentencing Commission is taking this up now. When could we expect a decision?

Mr. MAUER: Well, some people have heard that they may make a decision in January. They can do it at anytime, so it's likely within the next month or two. They had a full day of hearings this week, heard very broad variety of views. So I think all the information that they need to look at this issue is certainly before them right now.

CHIDEYA: How does race play into this convictions over crack and powder cocaine?

Mr. MAUER: Well, race is fundamental to the whole policy. You know, back in 1986 when these laws were adopted by Congress, we have this relatively new drug that had come on the scene, crack cocaine. And the image of that - the crack user, whether or not it was entirely correct - was that of a young black male, sometimes young black female. I mean, we have cover of Newsweek magazine and similar - lots of stories on television. That was the image that came across.

And the Congress passed the crack cocaine mandatory sentencing laws, really, in record time. There are virtually no hearings held, no discussion about - with experts in the field who knew something about addiction or treatment. And it's hard to escape the fact or the conclusion that the rush to judgment had something to do with the perception of the person who is being affected.

It's intriguing to note that the Sentencing Commission has previously made retroactive changes for other drug sentencing laws, particularly for marijuana and LSD, where they change the law that made it retroactive.

Those changes primarily benefited white defendants. Here, the estimates are 85 percent of the people who would benefit from crack retroactivity would be African-Americans. So it's a very stark contrast before us.

CHIDEYA: Do you, in your mind - although, you're advocating this - see any downside to potentially releasing people who have already been convicted under existing laws?

Mr. MAUER: Well, you know, there are some people who make the charge that -well, we'd be releasing dangerous people out in the community. Some of these people have had weapons involved in their offense. Some of them have been convicted also of obstruction of justice and the like. That's equally true for people convicted of powder cocaine or a heroin offenses or anything else, and yet, we routinely let people out of prison every day.

Many of the people sentenced for these crack cocaine offenses will have served 10, 15, even 20 years or more before they're let out. And so if we can't come up with some way to provide these people with job skills, with life prospects after that many years in prison, that points to a much more fundamental problem.

It seems to me they've paid far too much in terms of punishment for the crimes they committed. The question now is how do we prepare them for release to live at more constructive lifestyle when they get out. And I think we have an opportunity to take advantage of that now.

CHIDEYA: Well, Marc, thank you so much.

Mr. MAUER: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Marc Mauer is executive director of The Sentencing Project. He was at NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Next, we'll hear what law enforcement thinks about the proposal.

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