Wednesday, December 12, 2007

20,000 Federal Prisoners May Be Resentenced

For years, some people have complained about the sentencing disparity that exists in the federal system with respect to crack and powder cocaine. Until quite recently, possession of one gram of crack cocaine was treated as the same as possession of one hundred grams of powder cocaine.

The United States Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for writing the sentencing guidelines under which federal defendants are sentenced, re-wrote the recommended sentences earlier this year, greatly decreasing the discrepancy (resulting in shorter recommneded prison terms for crack offenders). That was big news. But the really big news came yesterday, when (as this article in the Post explains) the Commission voted to make the new guidelines retroactive. In other words, defendants who were sentenced under the old guidelines pertaining to crack cocaine possession and trafficking may now ask their judges to resentence them.

The Post describes the result as "early release," though that's not how the term is usually used. Typically, we think of a prisoner being released "early" when he or she serves less than the full sentence imposed by a judge. Here, the affected inmates will get new sentences (and they will serve the full sentence a judge says that they should serve). And remember: judges aren't required to give new sentences; they can turn down the requests upon a determination that the original sentence was appropriate.

The move by the Commission is nearly unprecedented. Many will view this as justice long denied due to unfair sentencing laws.

(For those who are wondering, Ohio law treats crack differently than powder cocaine, but the difference is not so dramatic. While the (old) federal ratio was 100:1 (100 grams of powder = 1 gram of crack), the ratio in Ohio is between 5:1 and 20:1, depending on the weight involved.)