Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reforms Go Into Effect

An estimated 12,000 people serving time for crack cocaine offenses could see their sentences reduced.

By Jorge Rivas Nov 02, 2011

Today, more than 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are black — serving time in prison for crack cocaine offenses will have the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.

The sentencing changes are part of the The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of last year. The reform bill reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1. On Tuesday, those already serving time became eligible for a hearing to consider reducing their sentences under the new changes.

Critics of the old sentencing system rightfully argued say that it was unfair to African-Americans, who make up 85 percent of those convicted of possessing and distributing crack cocaine. Under the former system, five grams of crack resulted in five years of prison, while it took someone being caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same time in prison.

The ACLU’s blog called the changes that went in to effect Tuesday "a huge victory in reducing racial disparities and restoring confidence in the criminal justice system."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has done its part to ensure the sentencing guidelines apply retroactively, and the FSA will go a long way in fixing this longstanding injustice. But more is needed.

Even with the changes, there is still an 18-to-1 disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

"This is an incremental step in trying to address the disparity, but we think the only fair way to treat these two drugs is to treat them and punish them in the same manner," the ACLU’s Jesselyn McCurdy told NPR.

An estimated 1,800 inmates became eligible for release immediately Tuesday because they had already served enough time.