Many activists are cautiously optimistic as news came down yesterday that Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. is supporting a proposal that would retroactively correct sentencing disparities between those convicted in crack and powder cocaine drug offenses. If adopted, the proposal would affect nearly 5,500 non-violent inmates and could go into effect as early as November 1.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the proposal sets out to correct unequal and unreasonably harsh prison sentences handed down for crack cocaine convictions.

The LA Times reports:

The proposal is intended to remedy a legacy of the war on drugs that meted out much harsher sentences to crack cocaine users, who are mostly black, than to powder cocaine users, often white and sometimes affluent. Congress changed the sentencing law last year but did not address the fate of thousands of prisoners already sentenced under the old system or arrested just before the law was changed.

Although some conservatives are opposed to the measure, activists predict that it will soon go into effect, correcting illogical disparities that have disproportionally affected minorities.

“For many African Americans,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said, “this fundamental unfairness has undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.”

Harsher punishments for crack cocaine came at the height of the drug wars of the ‘80s. Legislation was rushed through Congress in 1986, and tied the hands of judges, forcing them to hand down severe mandatory sentences for those caught with crack cocaine.

The LA Times reports:

Without time to study the issue, Congress wrote into law specific penalties for different versions of the same drug. Someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine or 5 grams of crack cocaine would get five years in prison. Possession of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine called for a mandatory 10-year term. The same was true for 50 grams of crack cocaine.

Because there is “no meaningful pharmacological difference” between crack and powder cocaine, the sentencing disparities were unjustified. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder testified before a congressional panel saying, “There is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders.”

If the amendments are approved, non-violent drug offenders and their lawyers can begin petitioning the court for a reduced sentence beginning November 1. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project estimates that most inmates will see a reduction of approximately 37 months off of their current sentences.

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