Federal drug crimes sentences could ease under new decision

A decision by federal authorities to reduce drug sentencing guidelines could bring relief to thousands of people enduring harsh prison terms. This could also signal a trend away from traditional "War on Drugs" strategies

Many observers of the United States' "War on Drugs" have long said that federal laws related to drug trafficking and similar crimes often lead to overly harsh prison sentences. After decades of imposing increasingly strict sentencing guidelines like mandatory minimums, it appears that federal authorities are now heading in a different direction.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted earlier this year to reduce the sentencing guidelines for most federal drug crimes. Recently, the commission elected to apply the new standards retroactively. In other words, men and women currently behind bars could see an earlier release under the new rules. Nearly 50,000 incarcerated people could be affected, according to The New York Times.

This decision could bring relief for thousands of people convicted of drug offenses. It may also reduce the harshness of future sentences, and possibly be a step toward correcting the severe racial disparity that runs throughout the U.S. criminal justice system.

Drug sentences along racial lines

A troubling but eye-opening report by The Sentencing Project suggests that efforts by Congress and the Justice Department to reduce drug use in the country has created a system that has put hundreds of thousands of people behind bars. Those imprisoned are much more likely to be African American than overall population numbers would suggest.

For example, from 1999 until 2005, about 13 percent of drug users were African American. However, they made up more than a third of drug crime arrests, and 46 percent of convictions.

A consequence of this is that those serving time on federal drug charges are disproportionately people of color. One reason is that, for decades, the law treated a tiny amount of crack cocaine the same way it treated a much larger amount of powder cocaine. The ratio was 100:1. A 2010 law reduced the ratio to 18:1, but many currently in prison were sentenced under the old system.

What are mandatory minimums?

With about 80 percent of people convicted for crack cocaine-related crimes each year being African American, this disparity had a dramatic impact on that community. In 2010, African American men were twice as likely to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum prison term than white men.

Mandatory minimum sentences come into play when a defendant is convicted of selling a certain quantity of a controlled substance. When that happens, the judge may have no choice but to impose a prison sentence dictated by federal law.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has spoken about the racial disparities in drug sentencing, calling issues with prison policy a civil rights issue. The Sentencing Commission's decisions, which will take effect until November 2015 unless Congress stops them, could be further steps toward providing Americans equal treatment under the law, as promised in the Constitution.

Keywords: drug crimes, mandatory minimums, federal law