WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As many as 12,000 federal prison inmates convicted for crimes related to crack cocaine may serve shorter sentences as a result of a unanimous vote on Thursday of a federal commission.
The United States Sentencing Commission, a seven-member body that sets sentencing guidelines, voted to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
That act of Congress sought to even out sentencing disparities between powdered cocaine users, who historically have been sentenced to less time, and crack cocaine users who have been sentenced more harshly.
Crack is the colloquial term for processed cocaine in the form of rock crystals which produce vapors when heated that are smoked, according to the National Institutes of Health. Crack is generally cheaper than the unprocessed form.
"Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," Commission chair Judge Patti Saris said in a statement.
The commission estimates that 12,000 offenders may be eligible to seek a sentence reduction of an average of 37 months. The average sentence will still be about ten years, but the reductions will save over $200 million in prison housing costs, the statement, said citing the Bureau of Prisons.
Human rights groups applauded the decision.
"Today's vote will give thousands of men and women the opportunity to seek reductions in their sentences in line with the new law. Correcting these sentences will go a long way toward alleviating some of the pain felt by the families and communities most impacted by this disparity," the Civil and Human Rights Coalition said in a statement.
(Reporting by Wendell Marsh; Editing by Greg McCune)