A new law reducing sentences for crack cocaine users should apply to people already in prison for the drug, provided they were not also convicted of a violent offense and did not have an extensive criminal history, Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 sought to level the disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine users, with advocates saying the much tougher sentences for crack disprortionately punished African Americans. Holder said yesterday that some of the more than 12,000 federal prisoners currently incarcerated for crack cocaine should be eligible for early release.

There is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders, Holder told the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a panel weighing whether to retroactively apply the law. Holder stipulated that inmates who had a weapon or a significant arrest record should not be eligible for early release, which cut the number of eligible prisoners by about half.

Others testifying before the panel supported Holder's proposal, including representatives from the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and former Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson. Leading Republicans on the respective House and Senate Judiciary Committees objected strongly, as did David Hiller, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

It shows they are more concerned with the well-being of criminals than with the safety of our communities, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said.

The issue is fraught with racial undertones, as African Americans are statistically more likely to use crack cocaine than the more expensive powder form and were thus disproportionately punished. African Americans currently account for 82% of federal crack offenders, and under the old law it would have taken 500 grams of cocaine to earn the same sentence as 5 grams of crack (that ratio has been reduced to 18:1 under the new law).

For many African Americans this fundamental unfairness has undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, said Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer.