WASHINGTON - The federal judiciary supports a change in US sentencing rules that may give about 20,000 crack cocaine offenders early release from prison, a revision the Bush administration says could endanger communities and clog the courts.
The question is whether new guidelines lowering recommended sentences for crack possession should apply retroactively. The rules took effect this month for future cases, as the government panel that sets sentencing policy sought to bring penalties for crack offenders more in line with those for cocaine in its powder form.
Critics say the disparity discriminates against blacks and poor people, who make up the majority of crack defendants.
"While there is a concern about public safety, the bottom-line need to address a fundamental unfairness outweighs that concern," said US District Judge Reggie Walton, speaking on behalf of the judiciary's policy-making body. He testified before the US Sentencing Commission at a public hearing yesterday.
The commission is weighing whether the new crack rules should apply to prisoners who were sentenced under tougher guidelines. That would let thousands of inmates ask the courts to reduce their sentences and could free about 2,500 crack dealers within the first year.
The American Bar Association, criminal defense lawyers, and a group representing prisoners and their families also testified in support of retroactivity. The rule was opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police, as well as the Justice Department.
US Attorney Gretchen Shappert told the commission that applying the rules retroactively would put dangerous criminals back on the streets at a time when violent crime in the United States is rising. Also, a sudden release would make it difficult for prisons to prepare inmates for life on the outside, Shappert said.
"My concern is about the impact on communities," said Shappert, the chief federal prosecutor in Charlotte, N.C. "It will be swift, it will be sudden, and, in my opinion, it will be irreversible."
Walton told the panel that "every crack offender is not the same," and he noted that federal judges would review each case and decide whether to reduce the sentence.
The sentencing commission estimates that 19,500 prisoners would be able to seek reduced time if the new guidelines apply to them, yielding an average reduction of 27 months behind bars.