In thousands of cases around the U.S., crack offenders and their attorneys are sparring with federal prosecutors over how to interpret new sentencing guidelines for crack possession or sale, says the Washington Post. “There are no generic cases, and these aren’t widgets,” said Gretchen Shappert, a U.S. attorney in North Carolina and the Justice Department’s point person on crack sentencing. “They present complicated issues, and each one is different.”
The guidelines were issued to right old wrongs; they have led to time-consuming legal challenges dealing with the long-forgotten consequences of the bloody crack wars in the 1980s and 1990s. Defense lawyers say they are correcting systemic sentencing flaws that removed their clients, mostly black men, from their homes for too many years. Federal prosecutors say they want to prevent bad guys from returning to the streets to wreak more havoc. The legal fights stem from a decision last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend guidelines and reduce prison time for crack offenders. Advocates, defense lawyers, and judges cite the massive disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Nationally, judges cut sentences by an average of two years, or 17 percent, for 12,000 crack offenders from March through early last month. The biggest issue is whether judges can reduce sentences below the new guideline ranges. In 2005, the Supreme Court said the guidelines, once mandatory, were advisory.