The Justice Department is pitching a proposal that would retroactively apply crack sentencing laws to thousands of offenders whose conduct occurred before new guidelines took effect reducing sentences for many inmates.
Last August, President Obama signed into law a measure that reduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, a move Justice officials supported.
Today, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer in separate remarks said the department favors going one step further—the retroactive application of that guideline to offenders whose conduct occurred before August. Such a move could benefit more than 12,000 prisoners.
Holder, addressing the U.S. Sentencing Commission in downtown Washington, said the Fair Sentencing Act “is being successfully implemented nationwide, achieving its central goals of promoting public safety and public trust and ensuring a fair and effective criminal justice system."
“[W]e believe the imprisonment terms of those sentenced pursuant to the old statutory disparity—and who are not considered dangerous drug offenders—should be alleviated to the extent possible to reflect the new law,” Holder said in prepared remarks.
The commission estimates that the average reduction in sentence for eligible offenders would be 37 months. Several groups, including the American Bar Association, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, provided testimony to the commission in support of retroactive application of the crack sentencing guideline.
Holder called the sentencing issue "deeply personal to me,” saying that as a trial judge in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s he saw the “devastating effects of illegal drugs on families, communities and individuals.”
In downtown Baltimore, Breuer raised retroactivity in a speech at the national seminar for federal public defenders.
“We support retroactivity of the sentencing guidelines amendment to this extent because our goal is a sentencing policy that is tough, and enhances public safety, while at the same time it promotes public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system,” Breuer said.
Dangerous offenders, Holder said, including inmates who used weapons during the commission of a crime, should be prohibited from receiving retroactivity.
In his remarks, Holder dismissed concern that the sentencing commission doesn’t have jurisdiction to make the guideline retroactive without the a directive from Congress. Holder said today the commission is “well within its authority” to make the amendment retroactive.
The acting federal prisons director, Thomas Kane, who addressed the sentencing commission today, said the corrections system must be ready to quickly and accurately recalculate sentences if retroactivity is applied.