Dennis J. Freeman
Last week justice finally claimed victory over injustice. Equality eventually trumped structural racism. While the world seemed riveted by finality of the Casey Anthony trial in which the young white mother of a murdered little girl was awarded her freedom after a jury found her not guilty of killing her baby, a much bigger story emerged.
A story that was overwhelmingly subdued and somewhat glossed over under the media’s crush to shine the spotlight on the international fever of the Anthony’s murder trial. After decades of in-your-face racial disparity when it came to sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine users as opposed to power cocaine buyers, the United States Sentencing Commission finally undid a wrong.
When Congress pulled its head out of the sand last year to approve the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), it opened the opened the door for the possibility that individuals who received harsh punishment for using crack cocaine would find leniency in their sentences.
The United States Sentencing Commission made that a reality when it voted unanimously to level the sentencing playing field when it comes to crack and powder cocaine offenders. As many as 12,000 prisoners are expected to have their sentences reduced as a result of the commission’s actions.
“In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation,” noted Commission chair, Judge Patti B. Saris.
“Today’s action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied, and that federal crack cocaine offenders who meet certain criteria established by the Commission and considered by the courts may have their sentences reduced to a level consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.”
The vote by the sentencing commissions is a big deal because before President Barack Obama signed the FSA into law crack cocaine users would receive the same mandatory prison time compared to those possessing cocaine in the form of powder.
In short, if a person was caught with five grams of crack they would receive the same mandatory five-year prison sentence as individuals caught with 100 times as much in powder cocaine.
By Congress and President Obama acting legislatively the disparity in the cocaine sentencing guidelines disparity dropped from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. According to the old sentencing laws, if you’re black and of color and buy the bad the stuff you get penalized more stiffly than if you’re white and using the more chic powder cocaine.
Some states like Missouri and New Hampshire are still of whack when it comes to cocaine sentencing. A person in Missouri caught selling six grams of crack cocaine receives the same 10-year prison sentence as someone who sells 450 grams of the drug in powder form.
In layman’s terms means that the person selling 75 times amount of powder cocaine than the crack dealer is held to a much lower judicial standard in that state. In New Hampshire that ratio is 28-to-1.
According to the Sentencing Project as many as 13 states continues this double-standard judicial practice. Ever since the federal government unleashed the Ant-Drug Abuse Acts in the late 1980s, the incarceration rate have increased substantially.
The so-called “war on drugs” has resulted in one clear thing over the last 25 years: more black people behind bars. That has to change. Of the estimated 2.3 million folks locked up behind bars, 60% of those individuals are people of color, according to the Sentencing Project.
Young black men, of course, are represented disproportionately. Black men in their twenties represent one out of eight prisoners. With the passage of the FSA and the action taken by the sentencing commission, let’s hope those numbers are reduced in the future.