WASHINGTON A reduction in federal prison sentences for crack cocaine took effect on Tuesday in a move that could let an estimated 12,000 inmates go free early.
The changes reduce federal penalties for more addictive crack cocaine to bring them more in line with those for powdered cocaine. The sentencing disparity had long been criticized as racially discriminatory because it disproportionately affected black defendants.
Up to 1,800 inmates are immediately eligible to go free and prison officials are processing a growing number of release orders, said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons.
"The pace has picked up in the last couple of weeks and we don't expect it to abate any time soon," he said.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimated this summer that about 12,000 inmates could be eligible to seek a reduced sentence, with the impact spread over decades. The average reduction in sentence would be 37 months.
President Barack Obama signed the sentencing changes into law last year. The Sentencing Commission voted in June to make the new law apply retroactively to its guidelines.
Burke said the changes did not mean that all eligible inmates could go free immediately since some could face pending charges or other sentences.
The Sentencing Commission said the retroactive application of the rules could result in savings of more than $200 million in the first five years after it took effect.
The federal prison system has about 218,000 inmates, Burke said. Many more prisoners are held at state and local facilities.
The changes mean that Stephanie Nodd, who was sentenced at age 23 in 1990 to 30 years in prison on crack cocaine charges, could be released as soon as this month, said her brother Dan Nodd of Mobile, Alabama.
Her case has received media attention as an example of the impact of the previous federal penalty policy for cocaine-related crime.
"It's hard to believe that here in America you would see a system that would convict people like this. We have to live with it and move on," Dan Nodd said.
Now 44, Stephanie Nodd, who has five children, has earned a high school equivalency degree and got a forklift license and other training in prison. Her brother said he hoped to help her find a job when she was released.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Greg McCune)