As we discussed in a previous post, sentencing for federal drug crimes is serious and strict. Oftentimes, people convicted of drug crimes — whether it is for drug possession, distribution or trafficking — spend years in federal prison.
Certain types of drugs are also treated more harshly than others under federal law, including crack cocaine. In fact, prior to 2010, 100 grams of powder cocaine was treated the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes.
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the ratio to 18 to 1, and the United States Sentencing Commission decided to impose the new guidelines retroactively. Although some lawmakers expressed outrage that prison sentences would be reduced for many crack offenders, a preliminary report released by the commission found that the change appears to have had only positive results.
Under the new guidelines, a total of 7,300 people had their prison sentences reduced, which has saved the federal government close to a half-billion dollars in prison costs. Additionally, the report indicated that there does not appear to be an increased re-offending rate among those who were released early compared to those who served their entire sentences.
For these reasons, some argue that the sentencing changes should be taken a step further. They say the powder cocaine/crack cocaine ratio of 18:1 still disproportionately affects African Americans and federal judges shouldn’t be strictly bound to the minimum sentences in the cases they hear.
Two bills have been proposed in Congress that would give judges more flexibility and would allow more inmates to qualify for sentence reductions under the new ratio.
Those in favor of additional sentencing-guideline reform say that it would not only save the government billions, but it would also be a more humane and fair way to treat those convicted of drug crimes.
Source: The New York Times, “Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off,” Editorial Board, Aug. 1, 2013