When crack cocaine became a social epidemic in urban neighborhoods during the 1980s, lawmakers felt that the only way to stop the problem from spreading was to impose harsher sentencing guidelines that would deter dealers and users alike. This ultimately led to a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity, which meant that 5 grams of crack cocaine carried the same sentence as 500 grams of powdered cocaine.
But in 2005, 2006 and again in 2011, lawmakers reassessed sentencing guidelines and questioned whether imposing harsher sentences was fair and just. This eventually led to the Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2010. The new sentencing guidelines decreased the disparity between cocaine convictions from 100-to-1 down to 18-to-1. But although the Sentencing Commission voted to have the bill apply retroactively, this didn't always happen in every case.
According to current estimates, there are approximately 12,000 inmates across the nation, including some here in Washington, who may be eligible for reduced or suspended sentences. As Attorney General Eric Holder explained this month in a videotaped message, there are people who are serving lengthy sentences that might not have come about had they been sentenced under current law.
It's because of this that the Justice Department announced that it will be expanding its clemency criteria for crack cocaine convictions in order to make it easier for federal prisoners to petition for a commuted sentence. The hope, Holder explains, is to “restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality” when it comes to sentencing for drug crimes. People across the nation can expect more specifics on the new criteria -- hopefully -- in the weeks to come.
Source: CNN, “New clemency criteria on drug sentences to be announced,” Bill Mears, April 22, 2014