Drug Policy

Hope for Sentencing Sanity


With Democrats in charge of Congress and Republican critics of mandatory minimums providing cover, the prospects for federal sentencing reform are looking better than they have in years. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a strong proponent of reform, is the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, replacing the rabid drug warrior F. James Sensenbrenner. Conyers plans to hold hearings on the subject this month or next. The first issue to be tackled probably will be the crazy sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder. Under current law, smokable cocaine is treated as if it were 100 times as bad as the snorted form—i.e., five grams of crack triggers the same mandatory sentence (five years) as 500 grams of powder. Because federal crack defendants are overwhelmingly black, the result is racially skewed sentencing dramatic enough to trouble even tough-on-crime conservatives (some of them, anyway). Since the active ingredient in the two forms of cocaine is the same and crack's purity is, if anything, lower (though smoking delivers a faster, more dramatic high), the sentencing disparity never made sense, as former advocates now admit. The punishment for possessing the two drugs should be the same (ideally, none), but more likely is a compromise that reduces the weight factor from 100 to, say, 20.

Crack sentences are just one particularly egregious feature of a system that imposes draconian punishments on nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, prompting judges across the country to complain about the injustices in which they are forced to participate. Although the Supreme Court has given judges some leeway by ruling that federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, that decision left untouched mandatory minimums dictated by statute, such as the 55-year sentence received in 2004 by a small-time pot dealer who happened to own a gun. "After so many years of this," says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "people have forgotten that we should be asking for the whole fix, not just little pieces."

NEXT: Will the Dems Save Our Civil Liberties?

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  1. You know, Conyers taking over for Sensenbrenner is the best thing to come out of this past election. Or more specifically, the loss of Sensenbrenner’s Judiciary post. Conyers is a tool and a hack, but at least he’s not malevolent.

    Santorum and Sensenbrenner were the worst fucks imaginable, IMO.

  2. Under current law, smokable cocaine is treated as if it were 100 times as bad as the snorted form

    So they have two options in order to bring the sentences more in line, decrease the penalty for crack or increase the penalty for powder. Which will they do, which will they do?

  3. See, what really confuses me here is that a little bit of pure can be made into a lotta bit of crack, relatively easily. (I have a close friend whose latest claim to fame involved making crack in an E-Z Bake Oven.) By this logic wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to punish users of the more concentrated “root drug” much more harshly?

  4. “By this logic wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to punish users of the more concentrated “root drug” much more harshly?”

    No. Because they tend to be white.

  5. prompting judges across the country to complain about the injustices in which they are forced to participate.

    Kind of a Milgram experiment unto itself.

  6. Crack is still around??

    That’s soooooo eighties.

  7. Hey ! They are trying to undo my legacy.After all it was a Democratic Congress that brought America mandatory minimums.After the Celtics lost Len Bias before he even played a game my constituents demanded we do something about this crack cocaine.I may be in Heaven-Jeeze it is hot up here-but My good friend Charlie Rangel will fight to keep the federal mandatory minimums Americans-and The Democratic Party-so valiantly fought for.

  8. Tip O’Neil brings up a really good point. The Republicans certainly started the WoD, but the Democrats did everything they could to intensify it in the wake of the deaths of Len Bias and Don Rogers. You know, for the children (who happen to be multi-millionaire pro athletes).

    Wasn’t it this site that had a great article on just that, somewhere around the anniversary of Bias’ death?

  9. Addendum: Jesse Walker linker to Radley Balko’s awesome Agitator piece on that topic.

  10. War on Drugs:
    The contra “liberaltarian” view
    History from memory w/o the google and wikipedia…………
    Who was in power with the passage of Harrison Act in 1914? I don’t know I’m lazy
    Marijuana prohibition-FDR and a Democrat Congress?(even worse was the law requiring a prescription for most non-narcotic drugs passed around the same time)

    LBJ bans LSD

    Nixon-OK now we have a Rethuglican-he coined the term “War on Drugs” created DEA etc.
    Of course we had a majority Democrat congress and Nixon was no conservative.He created a whole slew of 3-letter Fed agencies introduced socialist wage and price controls among his more well known crimes.

    Jimmy Carter-Paraquat on the Pot
    typical Dem hypocrisy his adviser Peter Bourne was writing ‘lude scripts for the White House staff and calling for legalisation of the harmless cocaine.

    Reagan-Now we are getting somewhere “Just Say No” well at least he aknowleged “choice in the matter.Signed Dem drug policies into law including those mandatory minimums.No longer safe to grow weed on your own property-the consequences grew exponentially.

    Ecstasy Meth ? bipartisan
    There are no good guys here but I believe more retired elder statesman of the GOP have come out in favor of legalisation than Dems
    Baker Schultz et al

    Not letting Republicans/Conservatives off the hook here but the “Progressive” policy of drug Prohibition is kind of a lefty thing IIRC.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong it would help greatly in choosing the lesser of two evils every other November.

  11. thanx jf I hadn’t read Balko’s piece before
    have to get Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors book now

  12. Crack is wack, yo.

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