MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - Thousands of inmates sentenced for possessing crack cocaine will soon be released from prison because federal sentencing guidelines have changed.
In the 1980's the violent crack epidemic lead Congress to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses. They created drastically different penalty structures for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine, which substance-wise are identical.
Melvin T. Norman Jr., Program Director for Synergy Treatment Center said, "When these laws were being passed out to people they associated it with violent crimes, and the money associated with cocaine became disproportionate with the amount of people that were arrested for it."
After more than two decades of a one-size-fits-all justice system that ignored circumstances and criminal history, sentencing laws were adjusted in 2008. But, it left defendants from years prior carrying out mandatory lengthy sentences.
"When you have a person who's stopped on the streets, who has a small amount of crack cocaine on them and you can't associate them with any violent crimes, why should that person be facing 10-15 years in jail?" asked Norman. "To me that's ludicrous. I understand addiction, the person needs treatment."
Now federal inmates are eligible for sentence reductions; there are nearly 400 who qualify in Tennessee.
Norman, who helps rehab drug offenders, said he's been waiting for this day.
"I don't think jail is the complete answer, I think an individual needs to have the opportunity to determine that," he said. "I think this is a wonderful thing that's come down that gives the individual an opportunity to face their disease."
Over the last several months federal prosecutors, defense lawyers and probation officers have been evaluating which inmates would be eligible for the reductions.