Crack cocaine offenders will receive shorter prison sentences under more lenient federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect yesterday.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, a government panel that recommends appropriate federal prison terms, estimated that the new guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years.
The new guidelines will reduce the average sentence for crack cocaine possession from 10 years, 1 month to 8 years, 10 months. At a sentencing commission hearing in Washington on Nov. 13, members will consider whether to apply the guidelines retroactively to an estimated 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced under the earlier, stricter guidelines.
The changes to the original 1987 guidelines could also add new impetus to three bills in the Senate, one sponsored by a Democrat and two by Republicans, that would reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums for simple drug possession.
Department of Justice officials said on Thursday that applying the new guidelines retroactively would erode federal drug enforcement efforts and undermine Congress’s role in creating sentencing policy.
“The commission is now considering applying the changes retroactively, something that Congress has not suggested in any of the pending bills,” wrote a Department of Justice spokesman, Peter Carr. “As we state in a letter filed with the commission today, we believe this would be a mistake, having a serious impact on the safety of our communities and impose an unreasonable burden upon our judicial system.”
If the guidelines are retroactive, crack cocaine offenders would be eligible to apply to the judge or court that sentenced them for reduced prison terms.
In a letter to the commission in support of retroactivity, the American Bar Association acknowledged the possibility that “courts will likely be inundated” by crack cocaine offenders trying to appeal their cases under the new guidelines regardless of the commission’s decision. But the association said that applying the new rules to current prisoners would result in “cleaner and more uniform decisions.”
Although Congress sets federal criminal statutes and could have rejected the sentencing guideline amendment within the 180-day period that ended on Thursday, once the new guidelines were adopted it became the commission’s sole decision to apply the new rules retroactively or not.
Some legal observers said the guideline changes were a way of shoring up the commission’s credibility in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court case that allowed federal judges, many of whom thought the guidelines were too harsh, to apply lower sentences in some crack cocaine sentences.
“That created a kind of instability in the overall sentencing guidelines,” said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State University law professor. “I think the commission recognized that the long-term health of all of its guidelines depends on its ability to get judicial adherence to their guidelines.”