Friday, November 2, 2007

Equitable Sentencing

Big news today from the U.S. Sentencing Commission regarding the inequity in cocaine sentencing laws.

"Crack cocaine offenders will receive shorter prison sentences under more lenient federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect yesterday. The United States Sentencing Commission, a government panel that recommends appropriate federal prison terms, estimated that the new guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years.

"The new guidelines will reduce the average sentence for crack cocaine possession to 8 years 10 months from 10 years 1 month. At a sentencing commission hearing in Washington on Nov. 13, members will consider whether to apply the guidelines retroactively to an estimated 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who were sentenced under the earlier, stricter guidelines."

Making this retroactive would be controversial, simply because the Justice Department is going to actively oppose it, and there doesn't seem to be a strong lobby for crack cocaine offenders out there, especially from a political capital viewpoint.

Nevertheless, civil rights advocates are applauding the decision.

"Federal penalties for crack cocaine were also widely criticized by civil rights activists, politicians and the Sentencing Commission itself for increasing racial disparities in the federal prison population. Blacks make up more than 80 percent of federal crack convictions, according to the commission.

"Critics said it was unfair to apply longer sentences for crack cocaine than for similar substances, including powder cocaine. Under the current federal law, for example, the minimum sentence for possession of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine is 10 years, the same as the minimum sentence for 50 grams of crack cocaine."

This latter point, regarding what is known as the "100 to 1" rule, is currently under review by the Supreme Court (Kimbrough v. U.S. 06-6330) and a decision should come by spring regarding its constitutionality. Since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 the federal government has condoned the idea that one gram of crack cocaine is the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine when it comes to criminal sentencing.

In other words, if being busted for 5 grams of crack generates one year in prison, it would take the equivalent of being busted with 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate the same one year sentence. Given the numbers listed above regarding race and crack cocaine use, critics have understandably referred to this as Apartheid in Sentencing.

After 20 years perhaps this type of disparate sentencing regarding cocaine is finally coming to and end.


laura said...

Do you think this is part of an overall reduction in some of the harsh penalties that were put in place in the 90's? I know that in Rhode Island (in particular, maybe other places?) they are reducing the harsh sentences they had placed on juvenile offenders. Dennis Kucinich is also running on a platform that including decriminalizing marijuana and abolishing mandatory minimums. Is crime losing political capital?

Todd Krohn said...

Laura, it would seem so, when you read of a reduction like this. The Supreme Court has been slowly curtailing mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines over the past half decade as well. And even though a candidate like Kucinich is a long shot, it is interesting to read of his c.j. policies that go against the grain.

But I doubt the crime issue will ever stop being a source of political capital. Today terrorism has replaced crime as a major source of votes, but if you conceptualize of terrorism as a criminal act, then in that sense nothing has changed. The "war on drugs" just became the "war on terror". And tomorrow it will be the "war on predators", or what have you.