A recent Supreme Court ruling may soon send home thousands of federal inmates convicted on crack cocaine charges. In 2007, it was reported in the AFRO that nationwide 19,500 federal crack offenders were eligible for reduced sentences. From that group only 269 federal inmates from the District would be eligible over the next 30 years. Four years later, an estimated 12,040 current prisoners will be eligible to request reduced sentences. Only 139 District offenders are eligible.

“Beginning today, thousands of individuals across the country will get another shot at justice,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in a Nov. 1 press release. “These people were forced to serve excessive sentences under a scheme Congress has admitted was fundamentally flawed, but, today, they can ask for long overdue relief.”

The US Sentencing Commission reported recently that Black offenders received relief from a mandatory minimum penalty least often in 34.9 percent of their cases, compared to White – 46.5 percent, Hispanic – 55.7 percent and other races 58.9 percent offenders.

In August 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 the disparity between crack and powder cocaine mandatory minimum sentences.  Congress directed the US Sentencing Commission to follow suit and it reduced the sentencing guideline for crack offenses in accordance with the new law. The Commission then voted in June 2011 to make the reduced penalties for crack offenses retroactive. Those already serving prison sentences under the old guideline are now eligible to seek sentence reductions in court. 

Impacted family member, Karen Garrison, said once the Fair Sentencing Act was passed it should have made sentences retroactive. “They did it for marijuana. Why can’t it be done in this case? “

Her sons, Lawrence Garrison and his twin brother, Lamont, were convicted on cocaine conspiracy that changed to cocaine base which gave them more time. Howard University graduates, the twins represented themselves pro se after the 2007 decision came down and successfully reduced their sentences.

Lawrence spent 11 years and eight months in prison. His sentence was reduced by 36 months with five years of supervised release. He works several jobs; a real estate agent, car salesman and health care coding specialist. “I came home in the middle of a recession. I was determined to make it. With the help of my friends from Howard, good things will continue to happen.”

On the other hand, Lamont, a political science major, served 13 years and five months. His sentence was reduced by 46 months. He is currently living in a halfway house waiting to be released. His family hopes things go well.

“Both of them wanted to be lawyers but not anymore. They’ve had enough of the judicial system,” said their mother. “African Americans always get the blunt end of the stick. D.C. didn’t do anything to assist impacted families.”

The changing attitudes in the criminal justice circles regarding crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing, which reached its ultimate expression with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), date back to 1995, when the United States Sentencing Commission concluded the mandatory sentencing guidelines imposed under the provisions of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act were onerous.

Congress passed the act in reaction to the prevailing national fears generated by the unfolding crack cocaine epidemic. The act stipulated a 100 to 1 ratio in sentencing severity be applied to defendants convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine as opposed to those convicted of powder cocaine trafficking.

Judges were restrained from exercising discretion over this sentencing requirement while considering individual case circumstances, as exemplified by the situation of the Garrison twins.

The commission determined that the rigidity of these sentencing provisions was excessive and communities of color were disproportionately impacted. In 1997, the sentencing changed to 5 to 1 then again to 20 to 1, in 2002. Finally the commission unilaterally changed the sentencing ratio to 10 to 1 in 2006.

The U.S. Supreme Court untied the hands of judges in applying sentences with its 2005 decision. In 2007, with Congress pressed to develop a solution, the court stepped forward to definitively invalidate the entire mandatory crack sentencing regime with its Kimbrough v. United States decision.

Inevitably, the fair sentencing legislation was brought forth, passed and signed into law, putting to rest the dubious distinctions that had been made between powdered and processed cocaine, a legal framework now reduced to tatters.

“Although the justice system has a list of all eligible inmates, unfortunately, the individuals must apply to be considered. The decision is not like a get-out-of-jail free card,” said Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations. “We made great accomplishments, but the battle has not been won. There are still thousands that fall into other categories that have not been affected by the decision.”

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed additional material to this story.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO