For years, Judge Reggie Walton of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has seen the effects of drugs on the Washington community. A federal trial judge since 2001, Walton is regularly called on to punish drug offenders.

“[W]hat seemed unconscionable to me was the scale of the difference that existed between crack and powder [cocaine] penalties — a difference that had a corrosive effect on citizens’ confidence in the courts,” Walton said in testimony presented to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in June.

Walton is personally and professionally advocating these days for retroactive application of amendments that would lower sentences for crack offenses and potentially lead to the early release of thousands of prisoners. Walton’s interest in the issue dates to the late 1980s, when he served as the associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In an interview, Walton described his — and society’s — changing position.

“I just don’t see how a society that prides itself on being fair and treating everyone equally can maintain the disparity,” said Walton, a member of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. Walton said his position should not be construed as being soft on crime. “That’s not me,” he declared.

DLA Piper’s Peter Zeidenberg, who has appeared in front of Walton, described the judge as a “tough sentencer” and said he “has strong feelings and will let them be known.” But criminal defense attorneys, Zeidenberg said, “feel confident they will get a fair hearing in his courtroom.” — Mike Scarcella