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Crack Cocaine Case Review May Free Inmates

Across the country on Tuesday, federal judges began reviewing the prison sentences of thousands of men and women jailed on crack cocaine charges. Many inmates could be released or see their sentences sharply reduced.

Congress voted last year to ease federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. But a decision this summer to revisit old drug cases has sparked new controversy.

Some History

In the 1980s, when the crack epidemic was raging, Congress reacted by setting penalties for crack cocaine that were a hundred times more severe than penalties for cocaine in its powder form. The law swept up thousands of low-level and nonviolent offenders.

Because crack was cheaper and far more pervasive in black neighborhoods, the vast majority of convictions involved African-Americans. Many were locked up for decades.

Hamedah Hasan was a young mother in 1993 when she was sentenced to serve 27 years behind bars after she was caught running errands for a family member who sold drugs.

"My release date from prison is Nov. 18, 2016. I humbly implore you to ask yourself ... if incarcerating a nonviolent first-time offender for 23 1/2 years ... is truly justice served," she said in a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Critics point out that whites who generally used or sold powder cocaine drew far shorter sentences.

Last year, Congress passed a bill easing crack sentences. The bill had mostly Democratic support, but was backed by Republican Rep. Ron Paul, who argued on the House floor that the original laws were designed to clean up drug-wracked inner-city neighborhoods.

"It turned out that it backfired. It actually hurt minorities. It didn't help them, and here we are trying to correct this disparity," Paul said.

The Fair Sentencing Act affects all future crack cocaine convictions. But over the summer, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to make the new crack guidelines retroactive.

So beginning Tuesday, as many as 12,000 people like Hasan are eligible to request that their prison sentences be sharply reduced.

"For the past 25 years, the 100-to-1 crack/powder disparity has spawned clouds of controversy and an aura of unfairness that has shrouded nearly every federal crack cocaine sentence that was handed down pursuant to that law. I say justice demands this result," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, vice chairwoman of the sentencing commission, after the decision was made.

Taking Hits

The decision to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive drew fire from members of Congress who blasted the sentencing commission, accusing the panel of overstepping its authority. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith — a Republican from Texas — opposed easing crack sentencing guidelines for new offenders, as well.

"This bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine. Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals," Smith said on the House floor last year.

Prison reform advocates are also unhappy with the Fair Sentencing Act and say it didn't go far enough.

Jesselyn McCurdy with the American Civil Liberties Union points out that mandatory sentences for crack are still 18 times more severe than guidelines set for powder cocaine.

"This is an incremental step in trying to address the disparity, but we think the only fair way to treat these two drugs is to treat them and punish them in the same manner," says McCurdy.

Federal judges will now decide case by case whether shorter sentences are appropriate and whether early release could pose a risk for public safety. That means communities won't see thousands of men and women imprisoned during the crack epidemic arriving home all at once.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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