The Justice Department is stepping up pressure on Congress to severely limit the number of inmates who are expected to enjoy early release from prison because of a retroactive change in the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines.
In written testimony prepared for tomorrow's House Judiciary Committee hearing, Attorney General Michael Mukasey calls on Congress to pass legislation to limit retroactivity to nonviolent, first-time offenders. The new push stems from changes passed by the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission, which reduced the ratio in the length of prison sentences of crack versus powder cocaine convictions from 100-1 to anywhere from 75-1 to 25-1, depending on the quantity sold. About 20,000 would be affected in total, 1,600 of whom would be scheduled for release after March 3. If the department's proposal were to pass, the number of offenders slated for early release could be as few as one third of the 20,000, a senior Justice official told reporters in a briefing this morning.
In his testimony, Mukasey reiterates that the department is particularly concerned the individuals could be released without appropriate re-entry programs and would pose increased risks of recidivism. Federal judges and public defenders have long said that the risks are manageable because the approximately 20,000 planned releases are staggered over a 30-year stretch. In exchange for such legislation, Mukasey says the department is willing to work with Congress to reduce the sentencing disparity in the future.
"We are not asking this committee to prolong the sentences of those offenders who pose the least threat to their communities," Mukasey says. "Instead, our object is to address the sentencing commission's decision in a way that protects public safety and addresses the adverse judicial and administrative consequences."
With the changes set to go into effect in less than a month, the Justice Department faces a very short time frame to gather support for any limitations to the retroactivity. And many members already have supported bills to lower the sentencing disparity even further.