Commission Votes Unanimously to Apply Amendment Retroactively for Crack Cocaine Offenses

The United States Sentencing Commission unanimously voted today
to give retroactive effect to a recent amendment to the Federal
Sentencing Guidelines that reduces penalties for crack cocaine
offenses. Retroactivity of the crack cocaine amendment will become
effective on March 3, 2008. Not every crack cocaine offender will be
eligible for a lower sentence under the decision. A Federal
sentencing judge will make the final determination of whether an
offender is eligible for a lower sentence and how much that
sentence should be lowered. That determination will be made only
after consideration of many factors, including the Commission’s
direction to consider whether lowering the offender’s sentence would
pose a danger to public safety. In addition, the overall impact is
anticipated to occur incrementally over approximately 30 years, due
to the limited nature of the guideline amendment and the fact that
many crack cocaine offenders will still be required under Federal law
to serve mandatory five- or ten-year sentences because of the
amount of crack involved in their offense.

On November 1, 2007, after a six month congressional review
period, the Commission’s amendment to the Federal sentencing
guidelines for crack cocaine offenses took effect. The amendment
was intended as a step toward reducing some of the unwarranted
disparity currently existing between Federal crack cocaine and
powder cocaine sentences. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984
specifically authorized the Commission to provide for retroactive
effect of amendments that result in lower penalties for classes of
offenses or offenders, as this amendment could.

The Commission made its decision on retroactivity of the crack
cocaine amendment after months of deliberation and years of
examining cocaine sentencing issues. It solicited public comment on
the issue of retroactivity and received over 33,000 letters or written
comments, almost all of which were in favor of retroactivity. Last
month, it held a full-day hearing on the issue of retroactivity and
heard from key stakeholders in the federal criminal justice
community.

The Commission considered a number of factors during its
deliberations, including the purpose for lowering crack cocaine
sentences, the limit on any reduction allowed by the amendment,
whether it would be difficult for the courts to apply the reduction, and
whether making the amendment retroactive would raise public safety
concerns or cause unwarranted sentencing disparity in the federal
system. Ultimately, the Commission determined that the statutory
purposes of sentencing are best served by retroactive application of
the amendment. Mindful of public safety and judicial resource
concerns, the Commission today issued direction to the courts on
the limited nature of this and all other retroactive amendments and
on the need to consider public safety in each case. The Commission
delayed the effective date of its decision on retroactivity in order to
give the courts sufficient time to prepare for and process these
cases.

The Commission’s actions today, as well as promulgation of the
original amendment for crack cocaine offenses, are only a partial
step in mitigating the unwarranted sentencing disparity that exists
between Federal powder and crack cocaine defendants. The
Commission has continued to call on Congress to address the issue
of the 100 to 1 statutory ratio that drives Federal cocaine
sentencing policy. Only Congress can provide a comprehensive
solution to a fundamental unfairness in Federal sentencing policy.
The Commission has consistently expressed its readiness and
willingness to work with Congress and others in the criminal justice
community to address this very important issue.

The bipartisan United States Sentencing Commission, an
independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal
government, was organized in 1985 to develop national sentencing
policy for the federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines
help to ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses
receive similar sentences.

Source: United States Department Of Justice

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