The U.S. Sentencing Commission took an important step towards correcting the racial inequity found in the existing sentencing guidelines for those who possess crack cocaine versus those who possess powdered cocaine. Hopefully it will be the first step in reassessing our current drug enforcement strategy.
Commentary By: Daniel DiRito
We’ve all heard the expression “justice is served”…and while most of us leave the table feeling satisfied with what we’ve been fed; others are forced to swallow a less than palatable plate…one that contains an inordinate amount of one particularly foul ingredient. For approximately two decades, those individuals who have made the unfortunate mistake of choosing to partake of crack cocaine over powdered nose candy have been left to endure the lingering aftertaste that accompanies a recipe rife with ill-conceived and inequitable punishment guidelines.
In a move that begins to correct this long-standing injustice, the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed the guidelines to allow jail time to be reduced by up to fifteen months. The change is an attempt to reduce the 100 to 1 equation that was instituted in 1988 as an attempt to combat the sudden increase in the use of crack cocaine. Basically, the law stated that an individual had to possess 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to receive the same prison sentence. As it turned out, the law imprisoned far more blacks for far longer periods of time for possessing far less cocaine than their white counterparts.
From The Christian Science Monitor:
Since 1988, possession of five grams of crack cocaine – an amount equal to five packets of sugar substitute – landed a person in jail for five years. But people caught with cocaine powder would have to possess 100 times that amount, or 500 grams, to get the same five-year stint behind bars.
It’s known as the 100-to-1 ratio. And because most people convicted of crack offenses are black and most convicted of powder cocaine offenses are white, critics have long argued that the disparity represents an egregious racial inequity in America’s criminal-justice system.
This week the US Sentencing Commission, with little fanfare, officially reduced its recommended sentences for crack-related offenses. [...]
As a result, up to 4 in 5 people found guilty of crack-cocaine offenses will get sentences that are, on average, 16 months shorter than they would have been under the former guidelines. Opponents of the 100-to-1 ratio applaud the commission’s move, but they say it’s just a first step because the so-called mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress remain on the books.
Many lawmakers expected that long, mandatory sentences for possessing or selling crack would discourage drug use. And because many perceived crack to be much more destructive than powder cocaine, Congress established the 100-to-1 ratio. In 1988, it passed another law that established a mandatory minimum penalty for simple possession of crack cocaine.
Since then, studies have shown that the crack-versus-powder sentencing disparity disproportionately affects minorities. Last year, 82 percent of crack defendants were black, according to the sentencing commission, compared with 9 percent who were white. For powder cocaine, it was almost the opposite: About 80 percent of powder-cocaine defendants were white and less than 14 percent were black.
It remains uncertain if the new guidelines will be applied retroactively. A follow up meeting is planned in November to consider that issue. If the changes were retroactive, the article indicates that as many as 19,500 individuals incarcerated for crack cocaine possession could have their sentences reduced by an average of 27 months.
The situation is a good example of the flaws that have plagued the war on drugs. While I don’t believe the use of cocaine is advisable, I do believe there is no legitimate reason to impose punishments that impartially penalize blacks. Some have suggested the best solution would be to make the sentences for powdered cocaine as severe as those for crack cocaine.
Personally, I don’t believe drug use can be extinguished through criminalization so stiffening the punishment seems like the wrong approach. I suspect those unfortunate enough to become addicted would be better served with improved treatment options and I wouldn’t be surprised if doing so would, in the long run, cost less to implement than the ongoing expenses associated with the existing criminal model.
At the very least, this current revision is a long overdue correction. Hopefully it will be the first step in reassessing our current drug enforcement strategy.
Cross-posted at Thought Theater