The U.S. Sentencing Commission finally has voted to rectify a wrong perpetrated on tens of thousands of drug offenders serving harsh — and some people believe unjust — prison terms.Sentencing guidelines passed by Congress almost 30 years ago mandated long prison terms for even minor drug offenses and, more disturbing, instituted a policy declaring that sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine be 100 times greater than those for powder cocaine.Almost from the beginning, many in the U.S., including federal judges presiding over some of the cases, realized that these guidelines were unfair and were particularly harsh on poor and minority individuals caught up in the “war on drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s.It was understood that the majority of those using crack were black or Hispanic, while most of the powder cocaine users were white. As a result, the federal prisons became over-populated, largely with an influx of inmates convicted of drug crimes and sentenced to long prison stays.In 2010, Congress reformed its mandatory minimum sentencing by unanimously passing legislation that reduced the sentencing ratio between crack and powder to 18-to-1 instead of 100-to-1. A year later, the Sentencing Commission voted to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, affecting about 12,000 inmates.But there would be no automatic release of prisoners. Inmates would have to make an application to a federal judge, and those petitions — based on a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — could not be handled by court-appointed or taxpayer-funded attorneys.Still, there were thousands of others serving long terms for nonviolent drug offenses, something the commission addressed in April when it approved an amendment lowering federal guidelines for drug trafficking. At the time, the question was: What about the people already convicted under the old standards?This month, that question was answered when the commission voted to apply the amendment retroactively, meaning about 46,000 federal prisoners could have their sentences reduced.For those thinking that jail cells across the country will fling open and release hordes of hardened criminals on society, that will not be the case.First, many of these inmates were young people who committed non-violent crimes and who the system rightly acknowledges received too harsh a punishment.Also, there is still a process that has to be followed to determine if and when an individual will be released.Unless Congress intervenes to stop it, the change will go into effect Nov. 1, with the proviso that no one will be freed under this rule before Nov. 1, 2015.Frankly, I don’t like the idea of making even one person wait another whole year before having the opportunity to be released, especially considering that their sentence was unfair to begin with.Attorney General Eric Holder, who has long advocated for a change in the guidelines, says “the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence.”While I think we want to be cognizant of public safety concerns, it should not take a year to figure out which individuals qualify for reduced sentences and and determine whether they should be released.It seems justice can move very quickly when authorities are bent on convicting certain individuals and putting them behind bars. But justice seems to move very slowly in dealing with someone who was wrongly convicted or, as in these cases, received unjust sentences.This country ought to be better than that.It’s taken us 28 years to come to grips with what we know were unfair laws. Let’s not drag our feet in righting these wrongs.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders