Attorney General Michael Mukasey says the Justice Department may attempt to derail new sentencing guidelines that are expected to allow the early release of thousands of convicted drug offenders, reports the Los Angeles Times. In Portland, Or., judges truncated the prison sentences of five defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses, getting a jump on controversial guidelines that are scheduled to go into effect in March. The reduced sentences, including two ordered up in the last week, are believed to be the first in a nationwide program that could ultimately cut federal prison time for more than 19,500 convicts.
The fast-moving clemency program has drawn criticism from the Justice Department. On Friday, Mukasey renewed his personal concern that the potential release of so many prisoners — up to 1,600 in March alone — could cause violent crime to spike in cities across the country. Mukasey raised the possibility of federal legislation to block the sentence reduction program but acknowledged it would face trouble in the Democratic-controlled Congress. In the 1980s, Congress made sentences for crack dealers much longer because of a belief that the drug, a crystallized form of cocaine that is smoked rather than inhaled, was more addictive and contributed to rising street crime. The drugs have been proved to be chemically identical; some criminologists believe the tough sentences may have increased rather than reduced crime.