The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s changes in the penalties for crack cocaine mean that nearly 20,000 inmates behind bars for such violations — mostly African Americans — will be eligible for early release over the next three decades, says the Washington Post. An editorial calls the revisions “welcome and much-needed adjustments to a skewed system that imposes a five-year mandatory prison sentence on someone caught with five grams of crack; a defendant would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence.”
Last week, Attorney General Michael Mukasey asked lawmakers to undo the sentencing commission’s retroactive application of the new guidelines, which takes effect March 3. A Senate panel considers the request today. Mukasey made an “appeal to fear,” says the Post, which urges Congress to reject his appeal. He failed to mention that not a single prisoner will be released before a probation report is produced, a federal prosecutor has a chance to weigh in, and a federal judge signs off on the reduced sentence. The judge may take into account many in making a determination, including a prisoner’s criminal history, his conduct in prison, and whether he has completed programs meant to help with assimilation into a community. A prosecutor who objects to early release probably can appeal a judge’s decision to a federal appeals court, adding another layer of protection for society.