Associated Press | 8/21/2009, 7:08 a.m.

These recent developments provide some relief not just for the incarcerated, but also for the families they left behind.

Karen Garrison — a Washington, D.C., mother of twin sons who were jailed in 1998 on crack offenses — is just one of many beneficiaries of the recent sentencing decision and subsequent developments. She told The Associated Press that she can now “just plan some kind of life” with her sons possibly on their way home.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Justice Department has sounded unwarranted alarms over the sentencing commission’s decision, contending that it would result in unleashing thousands of “dangerous prisoners, many of them violent gang members” back into communities ill-equipped to handle them, according to a statement by acting Deputy Attorney General Craig S. Morford.

The department probably wouldn’t be as worried over the prospect of a “mass” inmate release if Uncle Sam made prisoner re-entry programs a priority in the first place.

Overall, the latest developments toward eliminating sentencing disparities are likely to have a limited impact because the vast majority of drug convictions come out of state courts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, state convictions outnumbered those from federal courts by a 15-to-1 ratio in 2004.

Nevertheless, the recent course of events is important. What happens on the federal level could change the course of history at the state level. But Congress must first act to ensure that the disparities in sentencing are eliminated for good. The recent events by no means guarantee an end to harsh punishments for crack offenders. Our nation’s lawmakers must give the justice system and its enforcers direct and clear guidance just like they did in the 1980s when they decided to hold small-time crack dealers to a more stringent standard than their drug kingpin counterparts. Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.