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Crack offenders eligible for early release

WASHINGTON — Thousands of federal prisoners locked up for offenses involving crack cocaine will be eligible for early release after a vote Thursday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Congress passed a law last year substantially lowering recommended sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine crimes, ranging from possession to trafficking. The idea was to fix a longstanding disparity in punishments for crack and powder cocaine crimes, but the new, lower recommended sentences didn’t automatically apply to offenders already in prison. On Thursday the six-member sentencing commission unanimously decided that offenders locked up for crack offenses before the new law took effect should also benefit.

“I believe that the commission has no choice but to make this right,” said Ketanji Brown Jackson, a vice chair of the commission. “I say justice demands this result.”

The commission’s decision is final unless Congress decides to intervene by the end of October, though that is considered unlikely.

According to the commission’s own research, approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons nationwide will be eligible to have their sentences reduced because of Thursday’s vote. The average sentence reduction is expected to be approximately three years, though a judge will have to approve any lower sentence. Individuals convicted under state law and in state prisons will not be affected. The Bureau of Prisons estimates that over the first five years the change will save $200 million.

In its ruling Thursday the commission took a broad view of who should benefit from lower recommended sentences, though various groups had urged the commission to act more narrowly. A group of 15 Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate wrote to the commission saying the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress last year was not intended to benefit any past offenders. And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took the position that prisoners who used weapons during their crimes or who have significant criminal histories should not be eligible for reduced sentences. That would have cut in half the number of prisoners eligible for early release from 12,000 to approximately 6,000.

Prisoners eligible for a reduction can begin petitioning judges for a revised sentence beginning in November, assuming Congress does not act.

The reductions would not be automatic. A lawyer, the overwhelming majority of them public defenders, would file paperwork in court for the prisoner seeking a reduction, and the reduction would have to be approved by a judge. Prisoners would not necessarily have to appear in court, but prosecutors would also weigh in.

Courts have had prior experience with the process. In 2007 approximately 16,000 crack offenders had their sentences reduced after another action by the Sentencing Commission.