WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Tuesday rebuffed Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey's request for legislation that would cancel the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recent decision to retroactively apply lower jail terms to as many as 19,500 crack cocaine offenders sentenced under tough "war on drugs" legislation from the 1980s.
About 1,600 of those inmates will be eligible to apply for reduced sentences this year, according to the commission. The new guidelines take effect March 3.
Mukasey asked last week that the new recommendations be rolled back, arguing that applications for reductions in sentences could flood the federal courts and put dangerous criminals on the streets.
But during Tuesday's Senate hearing before the judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) accused Mukasey of creating public fear that "dangerous drug offenders will be instantaneously and automatically set free to prey on hapless communities."
Current federal law requires that a powdered cocaine offender possess 100 times more of the drug than a crack cocaine offender to receive the same sentence. For example, 500 grams of powdered cocaine -- but only 5 grams of crack -- calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
The original disparity stems from the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which was enacted amid fears that the smoked drug was more addictive than its powdered counterpart and thus was more likely to be associated with violent crime.
"No other drug is punished by mode of ingestion," James E. Felman, a Florida criminal lawyer and chairman of the American Bar Assn. sentencing committee, told the panel Tuesday.
"Our intentions were good," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who drafted the 1986 act. "A lot of our information turns out to be not as good as our intentions."
Three federal appellate districts, all in the South, will be disproportionately affected by appeals for reductions in sentences, saidGretchen C.F. Shappert, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, who represented the Justice Department at Tuesday's hearing. But judges and public defenders told the senators that they could handle the caseload.
Biden has sponsored legislation to reduce the distinction between crack and powdered cocaine when judges impose a sentence. Shappert said that keeping such a distinction was necessary to protect communities.
"We don't want to just cut off the head of the beast. We want to take out the whole operation," she said.