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Tens of thousands of federal prisoners could be released early from custody following a decision Thursday to retroactively apply crack cocaine sentencing guidelines that would reduce sentences for certain offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to give retroactive effect to the federal sentencing guidelines that implement the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The retroactivity of the amendment is expected to become effective on Nov. 1. Senior Justice Department officials pushed for retroactive application in recent months to further eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine offenses and powder cocaine charges. The retroactive application of the guidelines would benefit prisoners whose conduct occurred before last August. The sentencing commission chair, Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, said in a prepared statement that the decision “ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied.” The commission said about 12,000 offenders may be eligible for a reduction in their prison sentence. The average sentence reduction will be about 37 months. The federal bureau of prisons said the cost savings from the amendment could be more than $200 million in the first five years. Federal trial judges will have the final say on whether a prisoner is eligible for a sentence reduction. The commission said judges are expected to assess whether a sentence reduction will pose a threat to public safety. “The Commission is aware of concern that today’s actions may negatively impact public safety,” Saris said in her statement. “However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the Commission’s policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender’s potential risk to public safety. The sentencing commission said it received more than 43,500 written responses about retroactivity — the majority of which supported the amendment. A hearing was held June 1 in Washington. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. testified in support of retroactive application of the guidelines. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) praised the commission’s vote. In a prepared statement, Leahy called the Fair Sentencing Act “historic legislation [that] took important steps to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powder cocaine offenses — a disparity that has disproportionately impacted African Americans.” Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a teleconference Thursday that the commission took an important step in creating fairness in federal sentencing. “This is not a get out of jail free card,” Murphy said. “This is about fairness.” Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree called the increased punishment of crack cocaine offenders “unconscionable, incomprehensible and inhumane.” “An injustice,” Ogletree told reporters, “has finally been corrected.” Mike Scarcella can be contacted at [email protected] .

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