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Sentencing guideline revision means early release for some offenders

Last Tuesday, around 1,800 inmates convicted of crack offenses became eligible for early release because of changes in federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines, which had been in place since the 1980s, were revised last August and made retroactive by the U.S. Sentencing Commission over the summer.

The goal of the revision was to achieve more equality between sentences for crack and powdered cocaine offenses. Back when the old guidelines were passed, the war on crack was at a peak. In an effort to battle distribution of the drug, guidelines were passed which punished crack offenses 100 more harshly than powder cocaine offenses.

While the new guidelines were a strong response to heavy crack trafficking, they ended up sweeping in a broader array of criminals, including low level and nonviolent offenders. One of the side effects was that African American communities were hit especially hard by the guidelines. Crack was inexpensive and easily obtainable in such communities.

Under the new guidelines, crack offenses are still punished 18 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, but there has been a large improvement.

Not everybody has been happy with the revision of the guidelines. Critics say the Sentencing Commission overstepped its authority in revising the guidelines, and that removing harsh penalties will encourage offenders. Other critics say the revision didn't go far enough. Supporters say that similar offenses should be treated similarly, and that the new guidelines are a step in the right direction, even if more improvement is needed.

Over 12,000 inmates are expected to be eligible under the new guidelines for early release.

Source: CNN, "New rules slashing crack cocaine sentences go into effect," Carol Cratty, November 2, 2011.

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