ALBANY — A federal report issued Monday that could lead to the early release of crack-cocaine offenders has no effect on prisoners in Georgia state prisons, authorities said.
“The report does not affect those convicted by my office, nor does it affect prisoners serving sentences under Georgia state law,” Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said. “Georgia has never recognized a difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.”
That has not been the case in federal courts like the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, which includes Albany and four other locations.
Passed in the 1980s, a federal law gave inmates convicted of crack possession the same mandatory prison sentence as a person convicted of 100 times the amount of powdered cocaine.
The sentence disparity between crack convictions and powder convictions has long been categorized as a form of racial discrimination. It has been shown statistically that the majority of convicted crack users are black, while whites received the majority of powdered cocaine convictions.
“It is thought that more black people use crack because it is cheaper,” Edwards said. “While whites, being more economically advantaged, use powder that is not mixed with as many other substances to cut it.”
The U.S. Sentencing Commission issued the 645-page report Monday. The commission’s website ussc.gov states that 157 people were sentenced under the old guidelines in the Middle District. They could be eligible for release.
“They would have to serve their minimum sentences,” said Jeanne Doherty, the commission’s spokeswoman. “It is not an automatic release.”
The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of prisons, Chris Burke, said Monday that officials have already received hundreds of orders for early release. No word on whether any orders were issued from the Middle District was immediately available from officials.
Prison officials have a grace period before they comply with release orders from judges. Nationally, the commission stated that 1,900 prisoners could qualify for early release. Overall, the new guidelines could benefit 12,000 inmates nationally, the report stated.
Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which was signed by President Obama to reduce the disparity in future prison sentencing. This summer the federal policy-setting Sentencing Commission decided to apply the act to inmates already serving time. The effect of the change will probably spread over the next several years.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT
The U.S. Sentencing Commission reviewed 73,239 cases from fiscal year 2010 as well as its data sets from previous fiscal years to complete data analyses in a report. Some of the report’s key findings:
More than 27 percent of offenders included in the pool were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
More than 75 percent of those offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were convicted of a drug trafficking offense.
Hispanic offenders accounted for the largest group, 38.3 percent, of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, followed by black offenders, 31.5 percent, white offenders, 27.4 percent and other race offenders, 2.7 percent.
Almost half (46.7%) of all offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were relieved from the application of such penalty at sentencing for assisting the government, qualifying for “safety valve” relief, or both.
Black offenders received relief from a mandatory minimum penalty least often in 34.9 percent of their cases, compared to white, 46.6 percent, Hispanic, 55.7 percent, and other race, 58.9 percent, offenders. In particular, black offenders qualified for relief at the lowest rate of any other racial group, 11.1 percent, compared to white, 26.7 percent, Hispanic, 42.8 percent, and other race, 36.6 percent, either because of their criminal history or the involvement of a dangerous weapon in connection with the offense.
Receiving relief from a mandatory minimum penalty made a significant difference in the sentence ultimately imposed. Offenders subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing received an average sentence of 139 months, compared to an average sentence of 63 months for those offenders who received relief from a mandatory minimum penalty.
While the number of offenders subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing has increased, the proportion of those offenders to others in federal custody has remained stable over the last 20 years.