Currently Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey is trying to block the release of federal crack cocaine prisoners that have become eligible for release under newly enacted retroactive changes made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. He said that unless congress acts many violent gang members would become eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide and would produce tragic and predictable results.
Historically, whenever a judicial decision occurs in favor of those incarcerated, critics will take a fear mongers position to neutralize progress. Mukasey embraced this strategy by testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week and asked congress to undo the sentencing commission’s retro application of the guidelines that would free nearly 1,600 individuals this year. He also added that unless congress acts many violent gang members would become eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide and would produce tragic and predictable results.
In response, Democrats including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said that Mukasey’s comments were made to “raise fear” by falsely implying that 1,600 violent criminals would be released this year if Congress does not act to block this legislation. Mukaseys current position is part of the archaic hyperbole used in the war on drugs in the United States. It makes no sense in lieu of the support of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in their efforts to dismantle the existing draconian crack cocaine laws.
After many years of heated debate over the issue of crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparities, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to ease the penalties for crack on November 1, 2007. It would affect about 20,000 crack cocaine offenders within a period of years. It was the largest single act to reduce the sentences of federal prisoners. Soon after the Supreme Court of the United States followed with a decision that gave judges the ability to impose lighter prison sentences than federal guideline call for.
The disparity of crack cocaine sentencing has been questioned for years. If you distribute just five grams of crack, it carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence. If you distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine, it carries the same sentence. This 100:1 sentencing disparity has been condemned for its racially discriminatory impact by a wide array of criminal justice and civil rights groups. Hispanics and whites make up the majority of crack cocaine users, but the majority of those convicted under crack cocaine offenses are African Americans
The unfair sentencing that is in effect was enacted based on the many myths that surround crack use. These included media stories that told of a “crack baby” epidemic in the 1980s, stories now found to be greatly exaggerated or flat out lies. Research now shows that factors such as smoking and drinking, malnutrition, inadequate sleep, and poverty are responsible for the many pre-natal ailments associated with crack use. Criminal penalties for possession and sales of cocaine are severe. But the penalties for crack cocaine are much more severe, despite the fact that pharmacologically they are the same drug.
If we look at a similar situation in New York State with the reform of its Rockefeller Drug Laws as a guide to what might occur through the retroactive release of crack cocaine offenders in the federal system, we see that about 1,000 drug prisoners became eligible for release in 2004/2005 in NYS. The retroactive judicial relief of those released had no impact in regards to public safety while saving the state ten’s of millions dollars in expenses because of the reduction of its prison population. The changes made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission should take affect. It will do a lot to balance the scales of justice in reforming a bad law that has dished out unfair sentences to people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.
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