When they were convicted, the judge threw the book at them, but now thousands found guilty of crack cocaine offenses are set for early release, and for hundreds of them, it could happen immediately.
For years those convicted of crimes involving crack cocaine faced penalties up to a hundred times stiffer than those for crimes involving powder cocaine, but last year congress voted to reduce that gap.
Since the 1980s crack cocaine has had the reputation of being more highly addictive than powder cocaine and responsible for more violence. "Congress seized on both of those things and decided, well, this drug is worse than powder," Lexington attorney Patrick Nash said, "and so we're going to punish it worse than powder, a hundred times worse than powder, which was a very substantial disparity.
Nash has worked on hundreds of crack cocaine cases over the years. "There is some validity to the idea that more violence, more weapons tend to be associated with crack cocaine cases, but not to the extent, I think that was initially perceived."
What was clear was that the rules disproportionately affected African-Americans, leading civil rights leaders and other public officials to level harsh criticism against the criminal justice system. That's why in 2010 Congress passed and the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act which lowered the sentencing ratio of crack to powder crimes from 100:1 to 18:1.
A number of law enforcement groups opposed the Fair Sentencing Act, arguing in part, that a better way to address the disparity between crack cocaine sentences and powder cocaine sentences is not to lower the penalties for crack, but to raise the penalties for powder. Asked why that wouldn't be a better solution, Nash said, "Well, because that's another huge problem in society, and that is the over-crowding of our prison population."
Nash insists the change will mainly benefit first-time offenders, who still have the potential to turn their lives around. "If the person possessed a gun or used a gun or hurt someone or shot someone, the Fair Sentencing Act is going to have a minimal, if any impact on those kind of cases."
Thanks to the decision to make the changes retroactive, those who will be most immediately impacted are inmates already eligible for release and the communities they re-enter.
Nash says he knows of one case locally where an inmate will be eligible for release in the coming days because of the change. However, he says many more will see years taken off existing sentences.