In the past, the difference between the drug crimes sentencing of cocaine and crack was a legal and political talking point that demonstrated the unfairness of treating two similar illegal drugs differently based on the users of the drugs. Under the Obama Administration the sentencing laws addressing crack cocaine were rewritten but did not affect those currently in prison for crack cocaine crimes. Recently, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively reduce the prison terms of prisoners serving time for crack cocaine.
Because of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision last week to retroactively ease crack cocaine sentences, thousands of prisoners could see their time in prison reduced by several years. As many as 12,040 prisoners could be affected. Inmates first sentenced in 1991 and beyond for crack cocaine crimes could apply for the reduced sentences.
Under the old law, an individual possessing five grams of crack faced a minimum prison term of five years. Possession of 50 grams brought a minimum of 10 years. In comparison, possession of 500 grams and 5,000 grams of powder cocaine brought minimum terms of five years and 10 years respectively. The harsher crack cocaine sentencing law was designed as a disincentive in more violent urban areas. It was also believed that crack cocaine was more addictive than powder cocaine.
Research demonstrated crack cocaine was no more addictive than powder cocaine and the difference in sentence terms created allegations of racism. The majority of people serving time for crack are black and the majority of those serving time for cocaine are white or Latino.
Under the new law an individual possessing 28 grams of crack cocaine faces five years and someone possessing 280 grams of crack faces 10. The sentencing terms for powder cocaine remain the same.
Federal judges will decide the approval of reduced sentences on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as whether the prisoner has been rehabilitated or deemed dangerous will be considered. On average sentences will be reduced by about three years.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Lower crack sentences to apply retroactively,” Gary Fields, 7/1/11