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.