MICHEL NORRIS, host:
Does the punishment of crack cocaine users and dealers really fit the crime? The Supreme Court addressed that question this week. It ruled that federal sentencing guidelines laying out harsher sentences for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine were just that - guidelines, giving judges some discretion.
Back in November, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce suggested sentences for crack cocaine to lessen the disparity between crack and powder penalties. Last night, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted again this time to allow some inmates convicted before the revised guidelines to apply for reduced sentences; in essence, to make those new guidelines retroactive.
Mary Price is general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that works to reform sentencing laws. She says the decision affects almost 20,000 inmates who were sentenced before November 1st.
Ms. MARY PRICE (General Counsel, Families Against Mandatory Minimums): What this amendment does and what the vote yesterday did was to permit many of those prisoners to go back to the court and ask that the benefit of that sentence reduction be made available to them.
NORRIS: And how do they do that? How do they go back to the court? Do they…
Ms. PRICE: Well, federal law allows prisoners to make that motion on their own behalf. The Bureau of Prisons can actually make a motion on their behalf, or sentencing court in its own motion can reduce the sentences. I think the majority of prisoners will make those motions on their own behalf, hopefully, assisted by counsel.
NORRIS: The new attorney general, Michael Mukasey, has stood strongly against this notion of retroactivity, the idea this sentence reduction would apply to those who were previously sentenced. And he says he does this for a couple of reasons. He said it would dismiss the mitigating factors that the original sentencing judge considered in actually making that sentence. And he also noted that communities would be ill-prepared to handle the inmates that are now going to leave the system. Your answer to both of them.
Ms. PRICE: Well, prior to the Supreme Court's decision on Monday, many, many courts believed that they were not able to consider many mitigating factors on behalf of defendants who are now eligible for this reduction. So in the first instance, I think that things have changed dramatically, since - really since the beginning of the week. And secondly, this concern that communities will be overwhelmed is rather overblown.
It is true that 19,500 people, by the commission's reckoning, are eligible for these benefits but they're not all eligible at the same time. The two level reduction means that they can ask for sentence reduction, on average 27 months. But those people will not come home right away. They will come home over a period that stretches over 30 years. It is a reduction of the original sentence, not a get-out-of-jail free card right now.
The probation officers, who advised the policymaking body of the U.S. Judiciary, have said we can handle this. The judicial conference has advised the Sentencing Commission that they support retroactivity. So those are the judges that will have to deal with all these motions. So I do believe that the institutional actors who are most engaged and involved in this, has said very, very clearly, yes, we can do this.
NORRIS: I'm trying to think of the other side of this. If someone is listening and they live in a community where drug dealers are around the corner, where they worry about shots ringing out in the dead of night, and they're wondering why is it that the federal prison system is releasing people who are convicted of federal drug crimes.
Ms. PRICE: Well, many, many of the people who are serving sentences for crack cocaine offenses are not violent criminals. They are drug offenders. Many of them are addicted drug offenders and many of them are very, very low level drug offenders. So in the first instance, I think some of this myth about what this community of crack prisoners looks like has been debunked, in fact, by the sentencing commission.
But, really, basic justice and basic fairness require us to treat - and I think this is what the Sentencing Commission said yesterday, require us to treat people who are sentenced a day before November 1st the same as people who are sentenced the day after. It shouldn't be an accident with the calendar that the small measure of justice has made available to some but not to others.
NORRIS: Mary Price, thanks so much for coming in and talk to us.
Ms. PRICE: Thank you so much for having me.
NORRIS: Mary Price is general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. That's a group that works to reform sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.