The U.S. Sentencing Commission today considers the proposal on cocaine-sentencing retroactivity that would shave an average of at least two years off the sentences of 19,500 federal prisoners, about 1 in 10 in the 200,000-inmate system, says the Los Angeles Times. More than 2,500 of them, mainly those who have already served lengthy sentences, would be eligible for release within a year if the rule is adopted. Such a mass commutation would be unprecedented. The Justice Department is warning of dire consequences if the proposal goes through, including the possibility that returning thousands of serious drug offenders to the streets would compound a recent increase in violent crime.
The widely differing treatment of crack and powder offenders is “fundamentally unjust,” said Reggie Walton, a federal judge in Washington. As a top White House drug-control official in the 1980s, he advocated tougher sentences in crack cases. The penalties have become too severe, he says. Walton is testifying today on behalf of the policymaking arm of the federal courts, which supports the sentencing proposal. The Justice Department also is concerned about the courts’ being swamped with applications for reduced sentences. Fderal judges said they would be willing to shoulder the load. Acknowledging the possible risk to public safety, they note that judges have discretion under the proposal to decline to reduce the sentence of a defendant who is considered a threat based on criminal history and other factors.