Friday, November 2, 2007

Feds Cut Sentences for Crack:

Sanity on Issue Long Overdue

The story should have been on the obituary page. Or at least, in the "severely ill" section.

The inane federal sentencing guidelines in which years of additional prison time were given to perps for their chemical preferences in cocaine consumption has ended.

From the Post-Tribune:
New federal sentencing guidelines are set to go into effect today that will reduce the average sentence for a crack cocaine offense by 15 months.

The change, put in place by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, could be applied retroactively, which would mean an early release for more than 260 prisoners in Northern Indiana, and 19,500 nationwide.

"This is a clear recognition by Congress that the penalties imposed (for crack) were unfair," said Kerry Collins, a community defender at the federal courthouse in Hammond.

The reason for the sentence reduction is to address a disparity created in the 1980s when Congress established mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

The law set up a system where crack cocaine -- which is made from powder cocaine -- carried much stiffer penalties than its powdered derivative.

A crime involving five grams of crack cocaine carries a mandatory sentence of five years in prison, and 50 grams carries a 10-year penalty. However, it takes 500 and 1,000 grams of powdered cocaine to trigger the same five and 10 year sentences.
The calls for addressing this issue were always dressed in white and black--not inaccurately--but it was more about the issues of common sense, fairness and lack of effectiveness for many.
That disparity has earned particular criticism because of the racial overtones it carries, as crack offenders are more likely to be black and powder cocaine offenders are more likely to be white or Hispanic.

For instance, of the 19,500 prisoners nationwide convicted of crack cocaine offenses who would be eligible for reduced sentences, more than 85 percent of them are black and only 6 percent are white.

"That's the (biggest) issue: What community are we targeting?" Collins said. "It's pretty clear that the crack guidelines have targeted the black community."

In a report to Congress this spring, the sentencing commission called the disparity an object of "universal criticism from representatives of the judiciary, criminal justice practitioners, academics, and community interest groups."

The sentencing commission cannot change the minimum sentence law, but its recommendations can effect sentences for drug amounts that fall below, between or above the five and 50 gram levels.

"The (sentence) reduction is good," said David Vandercoy, professor of criminal law at Valparaiso University. "Most people would think it's long overdue ... (though) they would probably think (the disparity) is still too great."

The sentencing commission has tried multiple times before to bring crack and powder cocaine sentences in line with each other.

It attempted to change the guidelines in 1995 to treat both drugs the same, but that effort was overruled by Congress. It pushed for action again in 1997 and 2002, but nothing happened.

The changes will take effect unless Congress passes legislation to stop it, which it had not done by Wednesday afternoon.
The sentencing disparity, long a political football, has been as effective in reducing drug usage as other War on Drugs measure have been. That is to say, it' had been completely useless.

What it was useful for was putting people, both black and, increasingly white, behind bars a lot longer, for what was chemically the same offense as cocaine possession.

The same calls from prosecutors and some police chiefs will ring hollow. This was, finally, a victory for common sense.

by Mondoreb


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