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Here in this country, the Obama administration is saying, for the first time, that it will support leniency for people already behind bars for crack cocaine offenses. The proposal could send thousands of federal inmates home early, and 85 percent of the prisoners who would be eligible are black. In advocating for the change, the Justice Department is walking a fine line, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON: For more than 20 years, federal cocaine laws have been one of the biggest stains on the justice system. Federal judge Reggie Walton says those drug laws sent a generation of young black men to prison and undermined their families' confidence in law enforcement.
Judge REGGIE WALTON: You're talking about poor communities, you're talking about communities of color, and many of the people in those communities don't believe in our justice system. And they don't believe in our justice system because they know that the system has been unfair.
JOHNSON: Unfair because sentences for people caught with crack cocaine, usually minorities, were 100 times greater than for people who got caught with the same amount of the powder form of the drug. As a result, the harsh cocaine laws sent many more blacks to prison.
Congress moved to fix the law last year, but the change didn't apply to 12,000 inmates already behind bars. Attorney General Eric Holder told a federal panel, yesterday, that it's time to finish the job.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): It is time to honor, not only the letter of this law, but also the spirit of its intent.
JOHNSON: But there's a catch, an important one.
Mr. HOLDER: We believe that certain dangerous offenders, including those who possessed or used weapons in committing their crimes and those who have very significant criminal histories, should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity.
JOHNSON: So people who had guns in their homes and people with long criminal records would not be eligible for early release under the Justice Department plan. Critics say that would bar the door to well over half of the 12,000 people who might benefit from the change.
Ms. JULIE STEWART: I think the Justice Department is splitting the baby.
JOHNSON: That's Julie Stewart. She runs a group that advocates for changes in drug laws. Stewart says the Obama administration is trying to keep tough on crime prosecutors happy and give reformers a half a carrot, too.
Ms. STEWART: To keep a little bit of balance and a little bit of peace over there, that they decided, OK, we're not going to let it apply to everyone.
JOHNSON: The change could save a lot of money. It costs about $26,000 a year to house an inmate in federal prison. But James Felman of the American Bar Association says there's an even bigger reason to act - the average amount of time it would shave off a prison term.
Mr. JAMES FELMAN (American Bar Association): We're not talking about something that isn't worth the trouble. We're talking about three years of real people's lives.
JOHNSON: Natasha Darrington served 11 years of a crack cocaine sentence. It was her first offense. Darrington was in her mid 30s when she reported to a federal prison covered in razor wire.
Ms. NATASHA DARRINGTON: I missed graduations. My parents passed away, I wasn't allowed to go to their funerals. I missed the birth of my first grandchild.
JOHNSON: Darrington, who's working toward a college degree in business, traveled to Washington yesterday. She urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce prison sentences for crack cocaine to help other people like her.
But advocates say under the Justice carve-outs, Darrington would not have been eligible for an early release because her husband kept two registered guns in their house.
David Hiller doesn't have a lot of sympathy.
Chief DAVID HILLER (Grosse Pointe Park, Detroit): You broke the law, you got sentenced, you took your lumps, do your time.
JOHNSON: Hiller is a police chief in a Detroit suburb. He and state prosecutors pointed out that more than 90 percent of cocaine offenders behind bars pleaded guilty, bargaining down the number of criminal charges they faced. They say that makes it unfair to change the terms of plea deals years after they were signed.
The Sentencing Commission could vote on the issue by the end of the month.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.