While you’re wringing your hands about our dysfunctional government and wondering why the Obama administration isn’t tougher on the banks, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. In July 2010, Congress passed the The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which vastly reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Then, earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to make the decision retroactive. Yesterday, that change went into effect.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted this summer to make the reduced crack penalties retroactive, which means more than 12,000 current inmates are eligible to request reduced sentences.

The retroactivity took effect Tuesday. The Sentencing Commission estimates that inmates will have an average of three years chopped off their sentences. An estimated 1,800 inmates became eligible for release immediately because they had already served enough time, and prosecutors did not object to their release.

Critics of the old sentencing system say it was unfair to African-Americans, who make up the majority of those convicted of possessing and distributing crack.

“This really has been one of the great stains on our federal criminal justice system for 20 years or more,” said Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. “This disparity between the punishment for crack cocaine and powder was really unjustified.”

Needless to say, it takes political courage to be responsible for the sudden release of 1,800 mostly black felons who have done hard time in federal prisons. That’s why it’s a small miracle that it is happening at all. It’s inevitable that some of these parolees will commit violent crimes. Our prisons don’t tend to churn out model reformed citizens. It’s more like institutionalized gangsterism, where even if you didn’t belong to a gang before you were imprisoned, you probably joined one to survive on the inside. Prison policy is incredibly hard to get right, but we certainly have it wrong. And that’s the problem, not that people who received unjustly-long sentences are getting an early release. However, the eligible parolees’ records are being reviewed by judges in an effort to ensure that they won’t present a danger to the community.

There is still an 18:1 disparity between crack and powder (down from 100:1), but the new 5-year mandatory minimum sentence doesn’t kick in until someone is caught with 28 grams of crack (up from 5 grams). In effect, this will limit arrests to true dealers and largely eliminate the racial disparity of our cocaine sentencing guidelines.

It will be easy to demagogue this reform. Just wait for the first Willie Horton ad. Remember to have the back of the politicians who had the courage to do the right thing.

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