by Jeremy Leaming
President Obama and Congress took a significant step toward “fair and proportionate penalties” for some drug offenders with enactment last year of the Fair Sentencing Act, but additional reform legislation is needed to overcome the harsh effects of the nation’s so-called War on Drugs, a new ACS Issue Brief states.
Kara Gotsch, the director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, details, in her Issue Brief, the effect of the “War on Drugs” on our criminal justice system, noting that two laws enacted in the late 1980s created “hefty mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses.”
Specifically, Gotsch writes, persons convicted of “possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine were subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Defendants with at least 50 grams were subject to a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence.” But offenses involving powder cocaine resulted in significantly lighter sentences.
This sentencing disparity falls disproportionately on “African Americans despite evidence that the prevalence of drug use is similar across racial ethnic groups, suggesting disparate enforcement of facially neutral policies. An estimated two-thirds of all crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic, and surveys of users suggest that they generally purchase their drugs from sellers of the same racial and ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, 79 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants in 2010 were African Americans.”
In 2004, Gotsch notes, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, created in 1984 by Congress and comprising federal judges and lawyers, issued a report declaring that revising “the crack cocaine thresholds would better reduce the [sentencing] gap than any other policy change, and it would dramatically improve the fairness of the federal sentencing system.”