More than 2,500 federal inmates became eligible for early release from prison starting in March after the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted yesterday to reduce retroactively the penalties for using and selling crack cocaine, reports the Los Angeles Times. Despite Justice Department warnings against releasing thousands of criminals, the commission voted unanimously to allow inmates to seek reduced terms if they were convicted under tough drug laws passed in the 1980s. Those laws have come under criticism from civil libertarians and judges, who say crack cocaine offenders are treated more harshly than users of powder, which has resulted in stiffer penalties for African Americans.
The commission vote, which ultimately could affect some 19,500 federal prisoners serving time for crack convictions, came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges may deviate from the strict sentencing guidelines developed during the “war on drugs.” The two decisions amount to a repudiation of federal law enforcement policies and a return of power to judges in dispensing justice to defendants in federal courts. The numbers of those potentially affected, which amount to 10 percent of federal prisoners, dwarf even the grants of presidential clemency afforded draft resisters and conscientious objectors after the Vietnam War. Michael Horowitz, a former Justice Department official and commission member, said, “This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card by any means, but a fairness issue.”