Law chief asks to keep crack dealers in jail

WASHINGTON – The top U.S. law enforcement official will ask Congress on Thursday to block the early release of most convicted crack-cocaine dealers eligible for shorter sentences under a recent federal agency’s decision.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey also told Congress in an advance copy of his testimony that he was willing to consider legislation to reduce a gap in federal prison terms between crack-cocaine and powder cocaine.

It was essential that Congress act by next month, before the effective date of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision in December to make retroactive a reduction in sentences for crack dealers, Mukasey said.

“We think it is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to address the sentencing commission’s decision,” Mukasey said in the testimony for the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. “Unless Congress acts by the March 3 deadline, nearly 1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide.”

The Justice Department released his testimony in advance.

The sentencing commission, which sets guidelines for applying federal prison terms, last year reduced the guidelines for new crack-cocaine sentences.

It then made the reductions retroactive, in a move opposed by the Justice Department on the grounds that it could clog the courts and lead to the hasty release of criminals unprepared to return to society.

A total of about 20,000 prisoners could eventually become eligible for early release over the next several years, although courts must take public safety into account when considering individual cases.

REVISE 1986 LAW

There is also pressure in Congress to revise a 1986 law mandating longer sentences for crack, which is considered more addictive than powder cocaine and a source of street violence.

Blacks account for about 80 percent of the federal crack cocaine convictions, while whites account for a higher share of powder cocaine convictions. Critics have called the disparity in sentences unfair and racially biased.

Mukasey told Congress he would support the early release of some crack offenders. “We are not asking this committee to prolong the sentences of those offenders to pose the least threat to their communities, such as first-time, nonviolent offenders,” he said.

But a department official told reporters most of those eligible for retroactive sentence reductions under the current guidelines would not qualify under Mukasey’s proposal because they are repeat offenders, used guns, or were organizers of the dealing enterprise.

Critics have accused Mukasey of using “scare tactics” in opposing the early release. They say safeguards are already in place and the reductions are long overdue.

There has been legislation introduced in Congress to halt the early release of crack offenders, but lawmakers so far have shown little interest in quick action, and Mukasey said last month its chances of passage were uncertain.

Officials said if legislation is not passed by March 3, when the retroactive sentences take effect, it would be too late.

“We think it is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to address the sentencing commission’s decision,” Mukasey said in the testimony for the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

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