Shorter Time for Crack Cocaine

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted yesterday to retroactively reduce crack cocaine sentences. The change will take effect on March 3, 2008. Not every prisoner will be eligible for a lesser sentence.

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This is Wednesday, December 12th, 2007. And I am shocked you turned down my offer to buy you a cup of coffee this morning.

BURBANK: Ali, if I am laughing more hysterically, or talking to people who aren't here, it's not that I've change my meds. It's that I literally slept for 53 minutes last night. All my stuff is being moved out of my apartment today…

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STEWART: …that's Luke.

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STEWART: On today' show - you take it easy.

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STEWART: I'll drive this truck.

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STEWART: On today's show, we're going to continue looking at presidential candidates from the hometown perspective. Today, it's Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, and a discussion about deciding on Massachusetts when talking about Mitt Romney. We'll talk about that.

BURBANK: Right. Right. Also, we've got the best of the best lists here on the BPP. All these folks are doing their kind of the end of the year, the best of this and that. And we're doing the best of those lists. Today, The New York Times Magazine's Year in Ideas, which is a compilation of some of the best ideas of the year.

STEWART: And America's next top Santa. You know, not just anybody can put on the big red suit. It takes skill, patience, and apparently, quite a bit of vodka, from what we hear.

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STEWART: Possibly.

BURBANK: Also, Korva Coleman will be along in just a moment for today's headlines.

First, though, here's the BPP's Big Story.

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STEWART: Almost 20,000 federal prisoners convicted on crack cocaine charges could be getting reduced sentences, and about 3,800 of them could be out of prison next year.

BURBANK: That's because the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously yesterday to retroactively reduce the penalties for using and selling crack, cutting the average prison sentence by about 27 months.

STEWART: And this vote came a day after the Supreme Court ruled the judges can deviate from the strict sentencing guidelines developed during the so-called war on drug back in the '80s. Remember that?

BURBANK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: The court upheld more lenient sentences in two cases, where judges found the federal guidelines just too severe.

BURBANK: Those guidelines say that anyone convicted of dealing five grams of crack, even a first time offender, automatically gets five years in prison. You have to have at least 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get five years. Congress said it set the tough standards because crack offenders are more dangerous than powdered cocaine users.

STEWART: Now those laws have been called by some people racist, targeting African-Americans, as well as targeting the urban poor, who more commonly are busted for using crack, a much cheaper version of coke.

BURBANK: The commission's vote defies warnings from the Justice Department, which released a statement yesterday saying that crack offenders are, quote, "the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system."

And the Bush administration opposes making the lighter sentences retroactive. Yesterday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said the Justice Department opposes the move, and he explained why.

Attorney General MICHAEL B. MUKASEY (U.S. Justice Department): If those guidelines are made retroactive, you're then dealt with the question of how you deal successfully with the people who would, in the ordinary course, be released. How they can be worked into the probationary and supervisory mechanism that has to be in place before they can be let go. So for both of those reasons, we think it creates problems.

STEWART: Think of it like a judicial do-over. The Sentencing Commission's vote - excuse me - makes inmates eligible to petition a judge to be re-sentenced under the new guidelines starting March 3rd of next year. The commission says the delay will give prison administrators and other correctional administrators time to prepare for a surge of applications.

BURBANK: That is the BPP's Big Story. Now here's Korva Coleman with even more news.

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