WASHINGTON - Prisoners already serving time should benefit from a new law that lowers sentences for crack-cocaine offenses, but only if their crimes did not involve weapons and they did not have long arrest records, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday.
Holder was testifying before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is considering whether to retroactively apply lower sentencing guidelines resulting from the new law. As many as 12,000 inmates could see their sentences reduced, by an average of three years.
"As years of experience and study have shown, there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders," Holder said of crack offenders.
Because of the way the old law was structured, crack offenders, who are generally black, overwhelmingly received longer sentences than the mostly white offenders involved with powder cocaine.
Last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces penalties for crack-cocaine offenses to reduce the disparity with powder-cocaine penalties. But the act addressed new cases, not old ones.
Holder told the commission he supported applying the new law to old cases, but not all of them. He said prisoners who used weapons during their crimes or had significant criminal histories should not have their sentences reduced. That could make 6,000 of the 12,000 prisoners serving time for crack-cocaine offenses ineligible for earlier release.
Most of the other people who testified Wednesday also supported making the new crack sentencing guidelines retroactive, including representatives of the American Bar Association and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and former Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Not everyone was in favor. David Hiller, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said releasing offenders early would strain law enforcement and hurt communities by putting them back on the streets.
The commission is expected to rule within the next few months. Four of the six members would have to vote to support the idea. Congress would then have until the end of October to reject or modify the guidelines.