Drug sentencing change may mean reduced terms for hundreds of Pa. inmates

    Hundreds of Pennsylvanians convicted of crack cocaine possession could be able to shave two to three years off their sentences under a new federal proposal. President Barack Obama signed a law in August that reduced a controversial gap between sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. A federal commission will decide whether to make those new guidelines retroactive.

    When the crack-cocaine epidemic struck inner cities in the 1980s, Congress mandated stiff penalties based on the belief that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine. Crack was cheaper, and more prevalent in poor neighborhoods. Powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice among more affluent whites.

    As a result of those preferences, racial disparities accompanied the differences in sentencing guidelines. More than 90 percent of those who may be eligible for reduced sentences under the proposal are African American or Hispanic men.

    Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, supports making the new guidelines retroactive.

    “In Philadelphia and in other cities around the country, large pockets of African American men were sent to prison for excessive periods of time because they were involved with a street-level drug–crack cocaine,” she said. “Communities have been missing young men.”

    More than 500 Pennsylvania residents could be eligible to seek a reduced sentence, according to an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The inmates would still have to go before a judge for a resentencing hearing. The commission is expected to make a decision within the next several months.

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