Crack Cocaine

Shorter Crack Sentences Help Reduce Federal Prison Population

After 2010 reforms, crack use fell along with prosecutions and penalties.


Five years ago yesterday, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, reducing draconian penalties for crack cocaine offenses so they were closer to the penalties for cocaine powder. Since then, according to a new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), the sentencing gap between the two forms of cocaine has narrowed, the number of crack cases prosecuted by the federal government has fallen dramatically, and the the federal prison population has begun to shrink. Meanwhile, crack consumption has continued to decline, and the cooperation rate among crack offenders has not fallen, despite federal prosecutors' warnings that lighter penalties will make defendants less inclined to assist the government.

Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), the amount of cocaine powder required to trigger mandatory minimum sentences was 100 times the amount of crack. That disparity had no rational basis, since these are simply two forms of the same drug—one snorted (or injected), the other smoked. The unequal treatment was especially troubling because crack offenders were (and are) overwhelmingly black, so people with dark skin tended to get longer sentences than people with light skin who committed similar (or more serious) crimes. The new weight ratio is 18 to 1 rather than 100 to 1, which is just as arbitrary but not nearly as cruel. Under current law, a dealer gets a five-year mandatory minimum for 28 grams of crack and a 10-year mandatory minimum for 280 grams, as opposed to the old cutoffs of five and 50 grams, respectively. With cocaine powder, 500 grams will get you five years and five kilograms will get you 10.


Not surprsingly, the average sentence for crack offenders, which fell after 2007 thanks to revised sentencing guidelines and a series of Supreme Court decisions that gave judges more discretion, fell again after the FSA took effect, from 108 months in 2010 to 96 months in 2014, while the average powder sentence remained about the same (79 months in 2014, compared to 81 months in 2010). At the same time, the number of federal crack sentences fell by half, from 4,730 in 2010 to 2,366 in 2014. During that period about 6,000 crack offenders sentenced after the FSA took effect received shorter prison terms as a result. Their sentences averaged 71 months, compared to 106 months under the old rules. Retroactive changes that the USSC made to its sentencing guidelines in light of the FSA reduced another 6,880 prison terms. The combined effect, according to the commission, is "an approximate savings of 29,653 bed-years to the Bureau of Prisons."

The FSA also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack, a change that had a much smaller impact because such sentences were always rare. The annual number ranged from one to three between 2005 and 2010. There were a total of seven in 2011 and 2012, imposed on people who committed their offenses before the FSA took effect. All seven successfully appealed those sentences on the grounds that the new rules should apply to anyone sentenced after August 3, 2010. 

Reduced crack sentences have contributed to a recent decline in the federal prison population, which rose from 24,640 in 1980 to 219,298 in 2013 before dipping to 214,149 last year. According to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA), that 2.3 percent drop, following a 790 percent increase, means "our federal prison population is not exploding," which is literally true but rather misleading.

The NAAUSA's position paper, which Scott Shackford discussed here last week, also warns that "slashing minimum mandatory penalties will threaten the prosecution of many of the most dangerous and high level criminals involved in drug trafficking by undermining the cooperation incentive that the current sentencing structure creates." But the sentencing commission found no evidence of such an effect. "Rates of crack cocaine offenders cooperating with law enforcement have not changed despite changes in penalties," the USSC report says. "The rate of sentences that were below the guideline due to a government substantial assistance motion remained stable throughout the 2005-2013 period, indicating that the reductions in penalties during this period did not generally reduce the willingness of offenders to provide assistance to the government in the prosecution of others."

The report debunks another NAAUSA claim: that sentencing reform leads to an "increase in addiction" as drug dealers return to the streets prematurely, luring new users who otherwise would have escaped the bonds of pharmacological slavery. To anyone familiar with the economics of the black market, which replaces dealers as soon as they are arrested as long as there is a demand for their product, that prediction makes little sense. So it is not surprising that self-reported crack consumption, which was already falling when the FSA was enacted, continued to drop along with crack sentences.

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  1. Retroactive changes that the USSC made to its sentencing guidelines in light of the FSA reduced another 6,880 prison terms.

    Do the courts record when judges gave sentences because they were forced to as opposed to when they felt it was appropriate?

  2. Also, are there that many crack cases actually going to trial instead of being plead out? Do sentencing guidelines apply to plea deals, other than as a stick prosecutors can beat the charged into voluntarily giving up? Meaning, do the changes in sentencing guidelines affect those who have plead to (I assume) reduced prison terms?

    1. Yes they do. But I doubt it has had much effect on the guilty plea rate. All the “reform” did was make crack convictions subject to the same mandatory sentencing as cocaine convictions, which are also obscenely high just not quite as high as crack was. So the USAs can still threaten to ruin your life and send you to prison for years or decades.

      1. or decades.

        “Oh, you texted your friend about this deal? Conspiracy.”

  3. Look, we can’t have people like these on the streets, influencing children.

    1. And of course sending millions of children’s parents to jail for years on end will do nothing but foster a sense of loyalty to the country and the criminal justice system in particular among those children. Doing that wouldn’t do anything to create generations of people angry and embittered over the government taking away their parents or anything.

      1. Of course not – everybody who’s ever lived in a group home has loved the experience.

        1. And sending mothers of small children to prison never affects those children. The kids can just be raised by relatives or put in foster care. What could possibly go wrong?

          1. The solution is simple – never send anyone to jail, that has kids.
            Yeah, that’ll work.

  4. President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law,

    Morally equivalent to your rapist promising to use lube and a condom.

    1. Remember of course, Obama through Holder could have done this from day one. He just could have ordered the US attorneys to ask judges to ignore the sentencing guidelines. It is not like the defense attorneys would object and if both parties agree it is very unlikely a judge would not have gone along. And even if the judge didn’t, Obama just could have commuted any sentences that deviated from the guidelines.

      But Obama cares so much about the rule of law he waited for Congress to act. That is just how he rolls. He doesn’t so much as take a shit without Congress approving. You know?

      1. After living through LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, it is shocking that Obama can make all those bastards look honest and appealing.

        1. It really is. LBJ and Nixon were lying bastards but they at least respected the country enough to try and hide that fact. Obama treats the country with open contempt. He doesn’t like most of the country and thinks most of the rest are beneath him and makes no secret of that fact. He just doesn’t give a fuck. And his sycophants like Tony and Shreek continue to lick his boots. I think he probably hates them the most of all.

          1. Imagine how much better the world would be if Obama was merely a glad-handing fuckwad like Clinton.

            1. That is the irony. If Obama had just been what he claimed to be, the Republicans in Congress would have totally sold out and supported him. He was set up for success. The economy was going to rebound as long as he didn’t fuck it up. He could really have ensured a lasting Democratic majority.

              Instead, he told the Republicans and anyone who didn’t vote for him to go fuck themselves, shoved Obamacare down the country’s throat and in the process ensured the recovery was going to suck and the Republicans were going to be energized and will leave office absent the Democrats finding someone other than Hillary to nominate with his party completely out of power.

              Even the liberals I know are done with Obama. Other than the media who have too much invested in him and worship raw power anyway and a few dead end retards like Tony, the entire country is through with his sorry ass.

              1. The liberals I know refuse to admit they are done with him. Like yesterday when he announced his plan for world environmental purity my facebook blew up with “This is MY President, Let’s Do THIS!!!”

                1. Maybe I know a less delusional class of liberal. Even the ones who won’t admit they are done with him just don’t talk about him anymore and have moved on to Hillary or Bernie mania.

                  I hope the Democrats lose the White House in 16 mostly because I don’t want them to be able to flip the court and get it to reverse Citizens’ United and Heller. An added bonus to that happening, however, is watching these assholes who were so convinced they would be in power forever and Obama was going to usher in a Prog utopia face the entire thing turning to ashes and being completely out of power. They so deserve that.

                  1. John I flipped on Bill O’Reilly the other day, and you know that bit where he reads the same words that are on the screen, as if his viewers are complete morons? It could have been a verbatim John post. Every sentence was a lie, but delivered with such conviction.

                    And how hilarious it is that you wax patriotic while simultaneously hoping an election goes a certain way just so some people who disagree with your bullshit can feel bad. Do you know what Republicans have done to this country? Don’t you think preventing more of their rampant destruction is more important than getting your schadenfreude on those damn hippies?

                    1. I don’t watch O’Reilly shithead. Why do you think everyone does?

                      Tony you are the dumbest person on here. You need to stop watching O”Reilly. It seems to aggravate the voices in your head.

                      Regardless, if the Democrats don’t win the White House in 16, they will be completely without power in this country. They only control 3 out of 10 state legislatures, a small minority of governorships, have a small minority in the House and have effectively ended the filibuster in the Senate. All they have left is the White House. And when Obama leaves office, they are likely not to have that.

                      All you care about is political power Tony. And your team is about to lose it. When that happens, please keep posting here. Don’t deprive us of your tears and despair. You owe us that.

          2. Maybe it just seems that way because you’ve been trained like a goddamn poodle to hate every gesture he makes. You’re criticizing him for being the first president to sign a bill rolling back the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. (Which sainted president was responsible for that, I forget?)

            1. I am criticizing him for being a fake who could have solved the problem years earlier but didn’t. He only solved it when he got desperate and had lost Congress and needed to mobilize the black vote to get re-elected.

              He didn’t give a fuck about this when he had a majority in Congress. He only cared when he thought he needed the black vote to get re-elected. Before that, he was happy to let the people who worked for him send people to prison under these guidelines.

              If you were not such a racist piece of shit who is unable to judge a black man as full human being, you would see that. Check your privilege white boy.

              1. The Act started making its way through Congress within months of Obama taking office, and he signed it before the first midterm elections. You’re being unreasonable and you know it. The mystery is why you expect everyone else to be as fucked up with ODS as you are.

      2. He just could have ordered the US attorneys to ask judges to ignore the sentencing guidelines.

        Really? Guidelines set by an act of Congress?

        1. Yes dipshit. He has commutation power. He is also the chief law enforcement officer in the country. Every US Attorney serves at his pleasure.

          That is actual prosecutorial discretion and it would have been totally legal. He didn’t do it because he just doesn’t care. When he does care, like when he ignored the entire INA and started handing out Green Cards, he acts and doesn’t give a shit if it violates the law.

          Obama has never done anything that didn’t benefit Obama. Every other President has had some kind of charitable or non political cause, like Bush had with Africa. Not Obama. He has nothing because he is a narcissistic sociopath who doesn’t give a shit and has no conscience. And the best part is that he cares about useful idiots like you least of all.

          1. You are certifiable. This is actually directly aligned of Obama’s personal do-gooder initiative (My Brother’s Keeper). Again, you’re criticizing him for doing more on this issue than any president since the one who signed the disparity into law in the first place (and who you no doubt worship).

            Stop being brainwashed by rightwing blowhards. It makes you useless. You might be an interesting person to talk to if you escaped that bubble and started thinking like someone sane.

            1. No Tony. I am criticizing him for not doing anything until it benefited him politically. He deserves no credit for this. Any credit he gets is outweighed by the harm he did by not lifting a finger about it for over two years. He only did it because he needed a black turn out to win re-election. That is it. He doesn’t care about this issue or anything else other than his own sorry ass.

              I almost wish he was President for life just so I could watch him sell the gays out when doing so became necessary. God you are sorry excuse for a human being. I have no doubt Obama hates people like you most of all. How could he not?

              1. You are criticizing the president for having attitudes he’s never once expressed, but which you personally hold. You are a one-of-a-kind John. Never change.

  5. Drug abuse is like being shackled at the ankle in a footrace. Sanctioning drug abuse with criminal penalties is like putting up hurdles to help the shackled runners.

    1. Iran routinely executes people for using drugs. Meanwhile,

      Iran also has the worst drug problem of any country in the world. According to Iran’s interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, six million Iranians (20% of the population over age 15) have been affected by drug abuse, and 1.3 million (or 4.3% of Iranians over age 15) are addicts, using heroin as well as crystal meth. Only 36.7% of Iran’s population is economically active, one of the lowest counts in the world.…

      Sending people to prison is totally going to stop them from using drugs. Just ignore the fact that punishing people for using drugs up to and including executing them has failed to do anything to control drug use everywhere it has ever been tried. This time will be different.

      1. I would have guessed North Korea, to be honest. Then again, like China, they probably lie about it.

        1. Yeah. And it is not like you can trust the Iranians either. So who knows what country has the highest rates. Regardless, places that have absolutely no respect for the civil rights of their citizens and are willing to execute anyone they catch using drugs, still have higher drug use rates than the US. But the US is totally going to stop drug use if we just try harder.

          And gee, maybe people use drugs because they feel hopeless and don’t have anything better to do? Perhaps not throwing them in prison and ruining their life might be a good start to getting them to stop using drugs. Just a thought.

          1. At least in prison, they can experience the wonders of gay sex.

            1. Prison does often transform people into something better.

              1. well played

          2. Yeah, but they can get clean during those decades behind bars, cuz there’s absolutely no drugs whatsoever in prison. Right?

            1. None at all. Just like there is no gay sex in prison. Being gay is genetic you know.

    2. “Drug abuse is like being shackled at the ankle in a footrace. “

      That’s not true. Crack gets you really high.

      1. Only if you get the good stuff. If it’s cut too much, you may be able to re-cook it and make it better, but there’ll be less of it. And sometimes even re-cooking doesn’t help.

  6. Looks like they put their

    [dons Fist’s sunglasses]

    crack team on this one.

    1. Narrows his gaze at Almanian…

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