Holder Wants to Limit Crack Sentence Reductions


On Wednesday the U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing on the retroactive application of the shorter crack cocaine sentences that Congress approved at the end of last year. The legislation, a compromise between those who wanted to eliminate the sentencing disparity between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine and those who wanted merely to shrink it, reduced the weight gap by 82 percent: A crack offender who qualifies for the five-year or 10-year mandatory minimum sentence now gets the same penalty as someone caught with 18 (rather than 100) times as much cocaine powder. Although Congress did not make the change retroactive, the sentencing commission can choose to do so for prisoners whose terms are not dictated by the statutory minimums. According to the commission's analysis (PDF), retroactivity could mean shorter sentences for more than 12,000 crack offenders who are currently serving time. But Attorney General Eric Holder asked the commission to exclude prisoners who have significant criminal histories or who possessed a gun at the time of their offense, which would reduce the number of eligible inmates to about 5,500. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says that suggestion makes no sense, since those factors were already taken into account at sentencing.

Holder's proposal seems to be aimed at shielding the Obama administration, which supported the sentencing reform bill, from Republican flak. So far it is not working. On Wednesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) accused the administration of "supporting the release of dangerous drug dealers." Smith said Holder's testimony "shows that they are more concerned with well-being of criminals than with the safety of our communities." 

FAMM has more on retroactivity here.