District courts within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit have been locking up crack cocaine offenders at a record pace, accounting for 26 percent of more than 19,000 federal prisoners nationwide who could benefit from possible retroactive changes in sentencing guidelines. The total number of offenders from the 4th Circuit is more than any other circuit court in the country and almost double the number from the 11th Circuit, which placed second, reported Legal Times' sister publication, The National Law Journal (registration required).
On Nov. 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission's new "crack minus two" guideline amendment will take effect unless Congress intervenes, but the issue of retroactivity still hasn't been decided. If the commission decides the amendment should be applied retroactively, then an estimated 19,500 prisoners sentenced between 1991 and 2007 could receive sentence reductions, with an average reduction of 27 months in prison time.
The issue has gained notoriety because of the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which has led many legal organizations and civil rights groups to support retroactivity because they say the vastly disparate sentences unfairly target minorities. Of the 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who could receive sentence reductions, 86 percent are black and 8 percent are Hispanic. Only 6 percent are white.