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New clemency criteria expected for crack cocaine convictions

Did you know that convictions for crack cocaine used to be harsher than those for powdered cocaine? It used to be a source of contention between civil rights advocates and government prosecutors because of the harsh 100-to-1 sentencing guidelines and the racial overtones that accompanied it. But in 2011, the Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Obama, was supposed to remedy this issue. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked as well as people intended.

In the past, crack cocaine sentences carried a 100-to-1 sentence meaning that 1 gram of crack cocaine would carry the same sentence time as 100 grams of powdered cocaine. And since crack cocaine is considered more common in urban areas with high populations of African Americans, it’s not difficult to see why many argued for law reform.

But the sentencing act signed in 2011 seems to have only applied to convictions that happened after the bill was signed into law. This means that thousands of inmates across the nation, including many here in California, are serving sentences that could have been reduced or suspended altogether under the new law. Seeing this problem, the Justice Department announced recently that it will expand the clemency criteria for crack cocaine convictions to include cases that happened prior to the law’s inception.

Although this could mean a flood of eligible petitions that may take some time to sort out, Attorney General Eric Holder explains that it will also “restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” This may come as good news to many of our San Diego readers who may have supported the 2011 law but found it unfair that it was not applied retroactively.

It’s unclear when the new criteria will go into affect or when petitioners will be allowed to request a change to their sentence.

Source: CNN, “New clemency criteria on drug sentences to be announced,” Bill Mears, April 22, 2014

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Former Criminal Prosecutor With Proven Results