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Crime panel weighs step that could free thousands

Sentencing body is urged to retroactively apply less severe terms for crack-cocaine possession.

WASHINGTON - A year ago, a drug dealer caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory 10 years in federal prison. New rules have cut that to as little as five years, and thousands of inmates not covered by the change are saying their sentences should be reduced, too.

"Please make this situation fair to all of us," prisoner Shauna Barry-Scott wrote from West Virginia to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which oversees federal sentencing guidelines.

The commission is to meet Wednesday in Washington to consider making the new crack sentencing guidelines retroactive, a step that could bring early release for as many as 1 in every 18 federal prisoners, or approximately 12,000 inmates.

The commission has received 37,000 letters on the issue, most from inmates and their families and friends.

Many are form letters drafted by interest groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, but others are personal pleas. A woman from New York wrote to say her nephew should be "given another chance at society." A mother from Illinois said her child was sentenced "very harshly."

Congress and President Obama agreed in August to reduce the minimum penalties for crack. But the law did not apply to prisoners who were locked up before the change.

Before the law was passed, a person convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine - about the weight of five packets of Sweet'n Low - automatically got sentenced to five years.

Now it takes 28 grams to trigger a five-year mandatory sentence, more in line with sentencing guidelines for possession of powdered cocaine.

Many critics had viewed the disparity as racial discrimination because black drug offenders were more likely to be charged with federal crack offenses and, thus, to serve longer prison terms.

The Fair Sentencing Act, signed by Obama in August, attempts to remedy that disparity by increasing the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger five- and 10-year mandatory sentences.

Not everyone supports the proposal for retroactivity. The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 300,000 law enforcement officers, plans to oppose it before the commission.

"They knew what they were doing," Jim Pasco, the group's executive director, said of those serving sentences under the old rules. "They went into it with their eyes open."