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As many crack convicts are freed early, will crime rise

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"This tells us those who are eligible for early release are very likely to commit another crime," Attorney General Mukasey told the Fraternal Order of Police earlier this year.

The sentence reductions came about because last spring the Sentencing Commission reduced the 100-to-1 crack-cocaine ratio in the guidelines. That ratio was created by a 1986 law that deemed a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine serve the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone who was caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The result: Crack-cocaine offenders serve sentences up to eight times longer than those sentenced for powder cocaine. Because crack is more often used in minority neighborhoods, African-Americans account for 80 percent of those serving time for crack offenses.

Back in 1986, the 100-to-1 ratio was thought reasonable because crack was believed to be far more addictive and prone to provoking violence. Since then, scientific studies have concluded that crack cocaine and powder cocaine affect the individual the same way and are equally harmful.

In 1995, the Sentencing Commission determined that the violence associated with crack had more to do with the way it was sold on volatile street corners, rather than any inherent difference between crack and powder cocaine. It then recommended to Congress that the mandatory minimum sentences for the two types of cocaine be equalized. But Congress rejected the recommendation. In 1997 and again in 2002, the commission recommended the disparity at least be reduced from 100-to-1 to 5-to-1. Both times Congress refused.

Last spring, the commission voted again to reduce the disparity. This time, Congress did not actively oppose the change, and it went into effect this past fall.

In December, the commission then voted to make the reduction retroactive. That made the 19,500 federal prisoners currently serving crack sentences eligible for early release. The potential average sentence reduction would be a little more than two years.

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