Sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine have been brought into line with one another. Image: Flickr / Valeriebb / CC-BY-SA

In 1986, a 1:100 ratio on cocaine sentencing was instituted, meaning, for example, possessing just 1 gram of crack cocaine meant a sentence as high as possessing 100 grams of a different form of cocaine, powder cocaine. This month, the Fair Sentencing Act brought this disparity to an end, meaning as many as 12,000 federal prisoners could be released from prison soon.

Fair Sentencing Act goes into effect

The Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed into law late last year, went into effect this month. The law brings sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine into line with one another. The new law was mostly supported by Democratic lawmakers but garnered some support from the Republican side of the house. This month, federal judges began reviewing the cases of prisoners that were jailed on crack cocaine charges and have applied for case review.

Charges of racial disparity

The Fair Sentencing Act has garnered quite a bit of support because of the racial disparity in sentences. Since 1986, Caucasian individuals convicted on cocaine possession are much more likely to be convicted on charges of possessing powder cocaine, meaning much lighter sentences on average. About 84 percent of those convicted of crack cocaine possession are African-American.

Sentencing guidelines made retroactive

Over the summer, the Sentencing Commission voted to make the changes to recommended prison sentences retroactive. This means that anyone convicted under the 1:100 rule between 2007 and 2011 can apply for his or her sentence to be reconsidered by a federal judge. Contrary to some reports, this does not mean all 12,000 inmates with crack cocaine convictions will be automatically released. Instead, the inmates can apply for their cases to be reconsidered.

Not all inmates will be released

The average sentence for cocaine conviction, even after the adjustment to sentencing guidelines, will still be 10 years. This meansĀ  criminals whose cases will be reconsidered may still have up to six years to serve on their sentences. Even with this, the federal government expects to save $200 million or more in reduced prison costs over the next five years.



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