As many as 12,000 federal prisoners can get their sentences reduced under a new law that brought the penalties for crack cocaine more in line with those for the powdered form of the drug, a government commission decided Thursday.
The decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission applies to approximately 1 in 17 inmates in the federal system.
Congress last year substantially lowered the sentences for crack-related crimes such as possession and trafficking, after the 1986 law that came down extra hard on the drug was criticized as racially discriminatory.
The old law was enacted when crack was a new and terrifying phenomenon blamed for a wave of inner-city violence.
A person convicted of crack possession got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the amount of powdered cocaine. Five grams of crack, about the weight of five packets of Sweet N'Low, brought a mandatory five years behind bars; it took 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same sentence.
The different punishments were seen as racially unfair since crack was more common in poor, black neighborhoods, while powdered cocaine was more prevalent among affluent whites. About 85 percent of the inmates expected to benefit from the commission's action are black.
The question before the commission Thursday was whether people already locked up under the old law should benefit from the changes, too. The six-member commission unanimously decided in their favor.
"I believe that the commission has no choice but to make this right," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, a vice chairwoman of the commission. "I say justice demands this result."
The decision is final unless Congress decides by the end of October to intervene, and that is considered unlikely.
Prisoners will have to petition a judge for a sentence reduction, and requests will be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the judge taking into consideration the defendant's behavior in prison and danger to society. Prosecutors will be allowed to weigh in. The earliest any inmate could get out is November.
According to the commission's research, approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 people in federal prisons will be eligible to have their sentences slashed. The average reduction is expected to be about three years. Inmates convicted under state law will not be affected.
The federal 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 the lower recommended sentences, though various groups had urged the panel to act more narrowly.