The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently decided to apply -- retroactively -- new, lighter sentences for those convicted of crimes related to crack cocaine. As a result, on Monday, courts across the country will begin to decide whether 19,500 of them should be released early from federal prison.
A disproportionate share of these prisoners came from urban areas such as Los Angeles, and those communities will bear the brunt of their return.
It is the residents of those communities who will have to live with the Sentencing Commission's decision -- and many of them have asked me and others to oppose it. That is why the Department of Justice and national law enforcement organizations have asked Congress to postpone the decision from going into effect.
When I speak with people who live in these communities, they tell me that they struggle with the scourge of crack cocaine every day: Children can't play outside, elders can't sit on the front porch, families are imprisoned in their homes. And they have asked prosecutors like me to do something about it. Simply put, we prosecute crack offenders because everyone has the right to be safe in their homes.
When I speak with police chiefs across the country, they ask for federal assistance in their fight against crack-dealing gangs. U.S. attorneys have worked with local law enforcement and used the tools that Congress gave us, such as tough sentences for crack dealers, to address this gang violence.
As a federal prosecutor in Ohio, I saw what crack does to a neighborhood. The 7-All gang turned an entire 10-block neighborhood in Cleveland into a crack market. The police chief showed me a crime map of the city; the highest volume of the most serious crimes blanketed that neighborhood.
In my seven months as acting deputy attorney general, U.S. attorneys have told me similar stories.
In Selma, Ala., local law enforcement asked federal prosecutors to help clean up an open crack market run by a street gang, and residents came out of their homes and lined the streets to applaud the law enforcement officers making arrests. In Oklahoma City, crack dealers moved into a neighborhood, brought turf wars and shootouts and threatened to kill residents who went to the police -- until the dealers were put in federal prison.
Under the Sentencing Commission's revisions, about 19,500 inmates -- 10% of all federal prisoners -- will be eligible for reduced sentences. The first 1,600 of these crack offenders will be eligible for release in March, and about two-thirds of them will be eligible for release within five years.
Reentry programs are not equipped to deal with this number of offenders, who, as a result, may not get the help they need to make the transition from prison to the streets. That is particularly troubling because Sentencing Commission statistics also tell us:
* Nearly 80% of those eligible for retroactive sentencing reduction have a prior criminal history.
* About two-thirds of those eligible have a criminal history that correlates to a 34% to 55% chance of recidivism within two years.
* About one-third used a gun or other weapon when they committed their offense.
We believe communities are safer when violent, convicted criminals are imprisoned for the full duration of their sentences, and so the Department of Justice has also asked Congress to consider legislation that would limit the effect of the commission's decision. Two elements are key to any such legislation. First, only first-time, nonviolent offenders should have their sentences reduced. Second, judges should not be allowed to reduce sentences beyond what the commission specifically provided.
Some believe that Congress need not act because judges can keep the violent offenders from being released early. I believe judges will do their best. But many of these crimes occurred long ago, and it may be difficult for judges to have all the relevant facts before them as they reevaluate sentences. The sheer number of cases will overwhelm already busy courts, prosecutors and probation officers.
As for the debate about whether there should be much longer sentences for crack crimes than for powder cocaine crimes, let's have it. If the ratio set by Congress in 1986 is not the right one, let's find the right balance -- going forward. But as we have that discussion, let's not forget the reasons behind creating any ratio: Crack cocaine has a far more devastating effect on communities than does powder cocaine. In the meantime, Congress should postpone the implementation date beyond Monday to allow time to address these issues.
For residents of neighborhoods afflicted by drug dealing, this debate is not about powder versus crack, it's about the violence that crack dealing unleashed on their community and about not making it suddenly worse. For them, this is not a political topic for debate, it's daily life.