The decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission applies to approximately one in 17 inmates in the federal prison system.
Congress last year substantially lowered the sentences for crack-related crimes such as possession and trafficking, changing a 1980s law that was criticized as racially discriminatory because it came down extra hard on a drug common in poor, black neighborhoods.
The question before the commission was whether people already locked up under the old law should benefit retroactively from the changes. The six-member commission unanimously decided in their favor.
“I believe that the commission has no choice but to make this right,” said Ketanji Brown Jackson, a vice chairwoman of the commission. “I say justice demands this result.”
The NAACP was among the groups praising the commission's action. About 85 percent of the inmates expected to benefit from the decision are black.
“This is just another step in us righting a wrong, fixing failed criminal justice policy,” said Robert Rooks, national criminal justice director for the NAACP.
The commission's action is final unless Congress decides by the end of October to intervene and that is considered unlikely.
Prisoners will have to petition a judge for a sentence reduction and requests will be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the court taking into consideration the defendant's behavior in prison and danger to society. Prosecutors will be allowed to weigh in. The earliest anyone could get out is November.
According to the commission, approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 people in federal prisons will be eligible to have their sentences cut. The average reduction is expected to be about three years. Inmates convicted under state law will not be affected.
The federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that, over the first five years, the change will save $200 million.
In its ruling June 30, the commission took a broad view of who should benefit from the lower sentences, though various groups had urged the panel to act more narrowly.
Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, argued that prisoners who used weapons during their crimes or who have extensive criminal records should not be entitled to a break. That would have cut the number of eligible prisoners in half, to about 6,000.
Sandra Warren of Walnut Cove, N.C., said she hopes the commission’s decision will benefit her daughter Calandra Calloway, who was sentenced to 14 years behind bars for selling a large amount of crack. Right now, her projected release date is 2016 but the commission's ruling could mean she serves less than 10 years.
“I hope that she get to come home soon,” Warren said. “She wants to get back connected with her kids.”
The old law was enacted in 1986, when crack was a new and terrifying phenomenon blamed for a wave of inner-city violence.
Under that law, a person convicted of crack possession got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the amount of powdered cocaine. Five grams of crack – about the weight of five packets of Sweet N'Low – brought a mandatory five years behind bars; it took 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same sentence.
The law was seen as racially unfair since blacks made up the majority of people convicted of crack crimes, while whites were more likely to be found guilty of offenses involving powdered cocaine.
The revised drug law passed by Congress last year reduced the disparity in sentencing from 100-to-1 to about 18-to-1. Now, 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack is punishable by five years.