For a long time, getting caught buying, selling or just having crack cocaine in the United States meant a much longer sentence than holding or transacting in the powdered variety — 100 times longer. That was insane for several reasons, including that since blacks were more likely to use crack than whites were (Mayor Rob Ford notwithstanding), the law hurt them disproportionately. Another problem with the punishments was that they locked up non-violent offenders for life, though they had not victimized anyone.
The laws were reformed, but the fix didn’t help those convicted before it was enacted. For those unfortunates, the bad old law remains in effect. Most legal reforms work that way: they don’t apply retroactively, i.e. backwards in time; they apply only to violations committed after the new laws are in force.
That left eight people in prison who have already been there for more than 15 years, six of them with life sentences, all for crack-related offenses. They all would have been freed long ago under the new law. President Obama took a revolutionary step to give these people some justice: he commuted their sentences and set the stage for all eight to be released.
It’s the first time anyone imprisoned under the old law has gotten the benefit of the new one. Obama made clear that he wanted fairness for these eight people, but he emphasized a second motive: saving taxpayers the money it costs to keep people in prison unnecessarily. There is much more room for savings: more than 8,000 others sentenced under the old law remain imprisoned.
One of Obama’s beneficiaries, Stephanie George, was locked away for life for hiding her boyfriend’s crack (she maintains that he hid the drugs in her house without her knowledge). Even the judge who sentenced her said life imprisonment was unjust in her case, but the law left him no choice. George’s three children were left in her sister’s care.
Clarence Aaron, who was hit with three life sentences without parole, is another whose sentence has been commuted. His crime was, at age 23, introducing two people who went on to deal crack together. His friends paid him $1,500 for connecting them. That was the sum of his profit: he didn’t deal drugs and didn’t make a dime off the deals his friends made — according to him; others contend that he was involved in a cocaine transaction. He was sentenced under the much harsher anti-crack laws because the buyer planned to turn the cocaine into crack. Aaron had no history of involvement with drugs or law enforcement.
Even some tough-on-crime conservatives see the miscarriage of justice here. Fox News described Aaron as “once a high school and college football player, a church-going member of the Masons” who would “grow old and die behind bars.” Aaron unsuccessfully petitioned President Bush to commute his sentence; years later, Obama has finally done it.
Aaron’s case highlights another injustice that suspects of drug-related crimes suffer, one that might be called prosecutorial blackmail.
Aaron’s sentence was many times longer than those of any of the people he introduced because they squealed first. They negotiated short sentences for themselves in exchange for informing on Aaron, even though they were far more culpable. Prosecutors lied to Aaron that if he didn’t inform on the others he could not plead guilty, so he pleaded not guilty and had a trial. The prosecutors controlled how long he would serve in prison because they decided what to charge him with, and each charge came with a mandatory minimum sentence.
Crystal Shepeard wrote about this systematic injustice for Care2 Causes in “Why the Right to a Fair Trial Doesn’t Really Exist for Drug Defendants.” Even after the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced crack punishments to bring them into line with cocaine sentences, federal laws still provided mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that tie judges’ hands. Prosecutors can strong-arm defendants into pleading guilty by threatening to charge them with an offense that carries a long mandatory sentence. Their technique is incredibly effective: 97% of drug defendants plead guilty.
Reducing the mandatory minimum penalties for crack offenses is a step in the right direction. Applying the new reforms retroactively to eight people serving unjust sentences is only fair, but it leaves thousands behind in prison and does not disturb mandatory minimum sentences generally. Meanwhile Americans continue paying through the nose to prop up the world’s highest rate of incarceration. There are many casualties in the war on drugs.