Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Congress Moves to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

CCC peeks in from a short summer vacation to inform you of news regarding the well-known, and widely-protested, sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The New York Times reports:

Under the current law, adopted in 1986 after a surge in crack cocaine smoking and drug-related killings, someone convicted in federal court of possession of five grams of crack must be sentenced to at least five years in prison, and possession of 10 grams requires a 10-year minimum sentence. With powder cocaine, the threshold amounts for those mandatory sentences are 100 times as high.

In the bill passed Wednesday, the amount of crack that would invoke a five-year minimum sentence is raised to 28 grams, said to be roughly the amount a dealer might carry, and for a 10-year sentence, 280 grams.

While crack use has declined since the 1980s, arrests remain common, and some 80 percent of those convicted on crack charges in recent years have been black. A growing number of criminologists have concluded that the sentencing disparity is unjustified and has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to lengthy prison terms while offering more lenient punishment to users and sellers of powder cocaine, who are more often white.

Some points of interest:

  • While a large number of experts expressed serious doubts about the justification of the disparity, there were some who argued the much higher sentences for crack cocaine were justified due to the effects of the drug and its addictive qualities, and were not necessarily a proxy for race.
  • This new development, while a welcome one, is not necessarily a surprising one. In 2007, the Supreme Court decided Kimbrough v. United States, which allowed judges to depart from the advisory federal sentencing guidelines, even if the reason they cited was disagreement with the cocaine/crack disparity.
  • Part of this change may be explained through fads and fashions; as the NYT article mentions, crack usage is on the decline, and it is easier to move forward with such an initiative with a drug that is less of an enforcement priority than it used to be.
  • Note the humonetarian bend in the justification for the legislative change: Shorter prison sentences mean savings.
Props to Laura Beth Nielsen for alerting me to this.


Tom said...

I remember back when crack was spoken of as something near to a biblical plague back at the crest of the crime wave in the late 80s and early 90s. Everyone expected the 1990s to be that much worse with "ice" (the new crack) and "superpredator" teenagers, neither of which came to pass.

Still, the human costs were pretty staggering, and it does deserve mention that those fell particularly hard in the black community. Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics had a chapter discussing in part the impact of crack cocaine and the degree to which it coincided with a stoppage or reversal of upward trends in many socioeconomic and human development indicators within the African American community that had started to improve during and after the civil rights era. You still hear bitter conspiracy theories at times that crack or the drug epidemic in general was cooked up by the government to counter the civil rights movement.

Remembering back to that, I'm not sure how to contextualize this development. Did we conclude that the cure was ultimately worse than the disease (perhaps especially if it's effect on the disease was marginal or ambiguous)? Did we win the war? Lose it? Call a truce? Decide it never was as much of a priority as we thought?

Hadar Aviram said...

I think this is at least partially explained as a symbolic move toward racial equality. It is, of course, more than symbolic, and involves some savings and more lenient sentencing; but it is also one of several moves by the Obama administration to make decisions in several fields that correct racial inequities created by previous administrations.

The other explanation, methinks, might be part of a general humonetarian trend with regard to drugs. The Holder memo, ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from messing with CA marijuana usage and dispensation, was justified partly as a savings mechanism. This might be part of the same trend.