Drug Policy

Shorter Crack Sentences Take Effect

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The U.S. Sentencing Commission's guideline revisions shrinking the penalty gap between crack and cocaine powder took effect last week. (Amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines take effect automatically six months after they're approved by the commission unless they're overriden by Congress, which in this case took no action.) As a result of the changes, The Christian Science Monitor reports, "up to 4 in 5 people found guilty of crack-cocaine offenses will get sentences that are, on average, 16 months shorter than they would have been under the former guidelines." The commission has not decided yet whether to make the changes retroactive. If it does, says the Monitor, "more than 19,500 people now serving time for crack offenses could see their sentences reduced by an average of 27 months."

Families Against Mandatory Minimums makes the case for retroactivity here (PDF). Although the commission can reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, only Congress has the power to change the five- and 10-year mandatory minimums that kick in for crack at one-hundredth the quantity they do for cocaine powder. My May column on why the disparity makes no sense is here.