Federal sentences shortened for crack

WASHINGTON — New federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders went into effect Thursday, lowering the recommended sentencing range for people caught with the drug.

The new U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines for those possessing 5 grams or more of crack cocaine are prison terms of 51 months to 63 months, down from the old range of 63 months to 78 months. The new range for offenders possessing at least 50 grams is 97 months to 121 months in prison, down from 121 months to 151 months. Those ranges apply for first-time crack-cocaine convictions.

In April, the commission voted for the lower recommended sentencing ranges for those caught with crack cocaine. The recommendation sent to Capitol Hill on May 1 became effective Thursday after 180 days of congressional review.

The reduction will be the focus of a Nov. 13 commission hearing to consider whether to make the lower guideline penalty retroactively available to 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced previously.

Federal law sets a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine. It takes 500 grams of cocaine powder to warrant the same sentence. The crack-powder disparity has a strong racial dimension because more than four-fifths of crack cocaine offenders in federal courts last year were black.

A commission analysis estimated the change would reduce the size of the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years. Such a reduction would result in savings of over $87 million, according to The Sentencing Project, a private organization tracking the issue.

The sentencing commission is urging Congress to repeal the mandatory prison term for simple possession and increase the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger five-year and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms as a way to focus on major drug traffickers.

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