Professor Ron Wright quoted in Christian Science Monitor regarding shorter sentences for some crack cocaine violations

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Ron Wright

Professor Ron Wright is one of the nation’s best known criminal justice scholars. He is the co-author of two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing; his empirical research concentrates on the work of criminal prosecutors.

Thousands of federal inmates imprisoned under a 1984 law mandating harsh sentences for crack cocaine violations are eligible for shorter sentences, the US Sentencing Commission ruled Thursday.

The ruling affects at least 12,000 federal prisoners – primarily nonviolent drug offenders and most of them African-American – though they still have to go before judicial panels to argue their cases for getting out of prison early. The average sentence is expected to be reduced by 37 months.

The decision by the six-member US Sentencing Commission ends a long fight by advocacy groups and inmates’ family members to dial back sentencing rules for crack-cocaine offenders. One relative called the news “miraculous.” Congress last August voted to narrow a huge discrepancy in sentences meted out to people convicted of crack-related crimes and people convicted of powder-cocaine-related crimes, in recognition that the harsher punishments for the former smacked of racial discrimination. Thursday’s ruling made the new sentencing law retroactive, applying to people convicted of such crimes before last summer.

The vote by the commission, a bipartisan group of former judges and prosecutors, was unanimous. It applies to cases in which there were no aggravating circumstances, such as gun possession. The ruling follows a pattern that has been emerging across the US, as policymakers reconsider stiff prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

“Normally when we’re talking about reducing sentences, it’s for very small numbers of people in low-visibility settings, [but] here we’re not just talking pardons for three people, but about huge numbers,” says Ron Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University. “This is one more example that our basic attitudes toward how to punish crimes are different today than they were 10 years ago.”

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