Published: Jun 30, 2011 7:46 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 30, 2011 6:47 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) - Thousands of federal prisoners locked up for crack cocaine offenses will be eligible for early release after a vote by a Washington commission.

Congress passed a law last year substantially lowering recommended sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine crimes, ranging from possession to trafficking. The idea was to fix a longstanding disparity in punishments for crack and powder cocaine crimes, but the new, lower recommended sentences didn't automatically apply to people already in prison. On Thursday the six-member U.S. Sentencing Commission decided that offenders locked up before the new law took effect should also benefit. Approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 federal prisoners will be affected.

The commission's decision is final unless Congress intervenes by the end of October, though that is considered unlikely.

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