In 1986 Congress adopted a federal sentencing policy mandating that those who commit crimes involving crack cocaine be sentenced at ratio of 100 to 1 compared to those whose crimes involve powder cocaine. As an example, if an individual is caught dealing five grams of crack cocaine, they face the same sentence as someone caught dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine. For years criminal justice advocates, law enforcement, and others involved in day-to-day policing of cocaine-related issues have lobbied Congress to narrow this disparity. So far Congress has been silent on the issue, that is, until recently.
This week the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to address the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. Under the Bush Administration the Department of Justice opposed review of the sentencing disparity, but Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department has taken a clear step away from Bush Administration policy in this area.
As part of the hearings the Judiciary Committee heard from a number of law enforcement officials and district court judges, all of whom believe the current 100 to 1 policy is an utter failure. Multiple pieces of legislation are under construction aimed at addressing these disparities.
The sea change could be attributed to a number of factors. Drug offenders currently make up half of all prison inmates and reflect mostly low-level players in drug manufacturing, distribution, and trafficking organizations. Most are first-time offenders. States have witnessed their prison populations swell thirteen-fold simply to house drug offenders. As states face bankruptcy any policy argument supporting simply locking up petty drug offenders evaporates.
Additionally, the racial inequality between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses is well documented and no serious criminal justice advocate or scholar even argues with the basic premise that these guidelines have a discriminatory effect on the black community. While no one would admit in public or on the record to a discriminatory intent in enacting the legislation, Attorney General Holder has come pretty close in his statements announcing the Obama Administration’s turn away from the drug policy of the Reagan-Bush Republicans. Holder is on record as saying there is absolutely no evidence of the efficacy of the disparity, nor was there ever. One has to wonder then if there was no evidence that crack was more dangerous than powder cocaine, why the need for the sentencing disparity to begin with? Attorney General Holder has certainly asked that question.
That is not to say the reason Attorney General Holder and the Obama Administration support scrapping the sentencing policy is because they are black. Rather, it appears that it has taken the election of seasoned Constitutional scholar and the appointment of a seasoned law enforcement attorney to finally get a common-sense approach to criminal justice matters. Competency and experience. What a refreshing change.
photo courtesy of Marco Gomes via Flickr