Justice Department Aims to Cut Short Racially Biased Drug Sentences

Written by Nicole Flatow

The Department of Justice is aiming to cut short the prison terms of some offenders who were handed sentences 100 times more severe because of an outdated racially discriminatory drug disparity, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced Thursday.

Last month, President Obama shortened the sentences of eight crack offenders punished under the discriminatory regime, using his power under the Constitution to issue pardons (which erase the sentence) and commutations (which cut the sentences short). Cole said Thursday before a New York gathering of lawyers that those commutations were just a “first step” and that it is the Justice Department’s goal to “find additional candidates” and recommend them to the president for clemency.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

The Justice Department is looking for more “non-violent, low-level offenders” without a prior criminal record and potential to restart their life, he said. And the Bureau of Prisons will be advising inmates of the opportunity to apply for commutation.

Cole described the initiative in a speech that lamented the exploding U.S. prison population, driven largely by drug sentences. Echoing remarks by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this summer as he announced Justice Department plans to curb over-criminalization of drugs and move toward “smarter sentencing,” Cole noted that federal prisons are now operating at 33 percent over capacity, and more than half of the offenders are there for drug offenses.

Cole’s announcement comes on the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the ratio between crack cocaine sentences (associated with African Americans) and powder cocaine sentences (associated with whites) from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which was voted out of committee 13-5, would also roll back draconian mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Holder called for that law’s passage last week. But Cole noted Thursday that “aside from legislation, the President also has the ability to take executive action to positively impact the criminal justice system.” Ironically, President Obama has used the constitutional pardon power less frequently than any other modern president. Before his announcement in December to commute eight sentences, he had only granted one other commutation in all his years as president, out of 8,700 applications, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Among those whose sentences were reduced last month by Obama’s commutations were Reynolds Withersmith, who was sentenced to life without parole on a crack-cocaine conspiracy offense that he committed as a teen, and Stephanie George, who, like many drug offenders serving life without parole, was given the longest sentence of any of her co-defendants, even though the judge who sentenced her under protest lamented that her primary role was as “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.”

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Michael T.
Michael T.2 years ago

@Ellen belches: Michael T., you clearly don't understand the three-fifths clause. Go study the history of it (not a left-wing blog) so you don't make a fool of yourself in the future.

Oh really? I have just read a very tainted right wing nut site referred to as the Heritage Foundation and it doesn’t appear at all that their version conflicts with or contradicts the material I posted which is from the Essay Imagine a Country by Holly Sklar.

Perhaps in your arrogance. you know the way you perceive yourself as superior (without proper foundation), which I assure you from your previous comments on this and other threads actually indicates you are merely an insensitive, intolerant close-minded individual.

Ellen Gaston
Ellen Gaston2 years ago

Michael T., you clearly don't understand the three-fifths clause. Go study the history of it (not a left-wing blog) so you don't make a fool of yourself in the future.

Michael T.
Michael T.2 years ago

A study in the prominent medical journal found that drug and alcohol rates were slightly higher for pregnant white women than pregnant black women, but black women were about ten times more likely to be reported to authorities by private doctors and public health clinics under a mandatory reporting law. Poor women were also more likely to be reported.

It is said that truth is the first casualty in war, and the “War on Drugs” is no exception. Contrary to stereotype, “The typical cocaine user is white, male, a high school graduate employed full time and living in a small metropolitan area or suburb.” Says the nations former drug czar. A leading newspaper reports that law officers and judges say “Although it is clear that whites sell most of the nation’s cocaine and account for 80% of its consumers, it is blacks and other minorities who continue to fill up [the] courtrooms and jails, largely because in a political climate that demands that something be done, they are the easiest people to arrest.” They are the easiest to scapegoat.

Michael T.
Michael T.2 years ago

Imagine a country whose justice department observed, “The fact that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation’s history – and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order, -- set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day.” A newspaper headline reads “GUILTY . . . of being black: Black men say success doesn’t save them from being suspected, harassed and detained.” Racial profiling and “driving while black” are well-known terms.

Imagine a country where from the first arrest to third strikes resulting in lifetime sentences – often for nonviolent petty crimes – blacks and Latinos are arrested and imprisoned in massively disproportionate numbers.

Imagine a country waging a racially biased “War on Drugs.” Nearly three out of four drug users are white, according to government data, but more than three out of four state prisoners convicted of drug offenses are black and Latino.

Michael T.
Michael T.2 years ago

Imagine a country that imprisons black people at a much higher rate than South Africa did under apartheid. One out of 8 black men ages 25-29 are incarcerated in prisons or jails compared to one out of 59 white men in the same age group. The nation’s bureau of justice statistics reports that incarceration rates for black men of all ages were five to seven times greater than those for white men in the same age groups. Incarceration rates for black women are generally four times higher than for white women.

Imagine a country where a national sentencing project reported in 2004, “Black women born today are five times more likely to go to prison in their lifetimes than black women born in 1974.”

Meanwhile, nearly one out of ten black men and women are unemployed according to the official count. This includes nearly one out of three black men and women ages 16-19 and one out of six, ages 20-24. Remember, to be counted in the official unemployment rate you must be actively looking for a job and not finding one. “Surplus” workers are increasingly being criminalized.

Michael T.
Michael T.2 years ago

Think again Ellen

Imagine a country whose constitution once counted black slaves as worth three-fifths of whites. Today, black per capita income is about three-fifths of whites.
Imagine a country where racial disparities take their toll from birth to death. The black infant mortality rate is double that of whites. Black life expectancy is nearly six years less. The official black unemployment rate is about twice that of whites and the black poverty rate is almost triple that of whites.
Imagine a country where the typical white household has about six times the net worth -- including home equity – as the typical household of color. In 2004, median household net worth was $140,700 for white households and just $24,800 for households of color.
Imagine a country where the government subsidized decades of segregated suburbanization for whites while the inner cities left to people of color were treated as outsider cities – separate, unequal and disposable. Recent studies have documented continuing discrimination in education, employment, banking, insurance, housing, health care and criminal justice.

Ellen Gaston
Ellen Gaston2 years ago

Eric Holder isn't anything but a corrupt political hack who sees everything thru race. But I feel so much better now that there will be more black crack dealers on the streets as opposed to white ones.

Nimue Pendragon

Good. Thank you, Mr. President.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm2 years ago

Poor peopl do not get near as gooda break in the courts either. They cant afford the lawyers that can get them off. Anotther way having too little money becasue of no jobs affects our “equality”, We are all supposed to be equal under the law. What a joke that is.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.2 years ago