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”
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
Keywords: drug crimes, mandatory minimums, federal law