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Crack Sentences to be Reduced Retroactively?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on June 03, 2011 6:54 AM

Attorney General Eric Holder has made it clear that the Obama Administration supports retroactively lowering crack sentences for offenders who are already behind bars. But only if the offenders didn't use a firearm in the crime and don't have lengthy criminal records.

With a few caveats, Holder's plan would lead to the early release of about 6,000 prisoners. But before it can be put into action, the Commission must agree, and then Congress must vote.

However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applies to new sentences, which means that the Sentencing Commission and Congress must now decide whether to apply it retroactively.

After years of being bombarded with studies citing the disproportionate impact of crack sentences on minorities, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act last year. The new law dramatically reduces the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences, though a gap does still exist.

A retroactive reduction in crack sentences first requires that the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a Congress-created advisory committee, vote to amend the Sentencing Guidelines. Congress must then vote to approve the changes, which in turns gives federal judges the discretion to reduce sentences.

Holder supports this line of events, but according to his testimony in front of the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this week, only wants to reduce crack sentences of offenders who did not commit their crime with a firearm and to those who do not boast impressive criminal records.

News of whether, and how, crack sentences will be retroactively reduced won't come for at least another 6 months, but based on the large range of provided testimony, it's likely that the U.S. Sentencing Commission will be on board.

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