We don’t usually talk about sentencing on this site because sentences can vary widely between jurisdictions and from defendant to defendant based on the facts of the case and the particularities of the defendant. But this is different. On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act which makes profound changes to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. These changes will help to make the criminal justice system more fair and help erase some of the built in racism of the 1986 measure.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, among other things, created the 100:1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine. The 1986 law punished the sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine or 5 grams of crack cocaine with a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence. Someone caught with 1,000 grams of powder cocaine or 10 grams of crack cocaine faced a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence.
Some of you may remember (and others of you probably learned in history class) that in 1986 the country was in the midst of “The War on Drugs.” In 1983, the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was founded. President Ronald Reagan called drugs a menace to society and vowed that there would be strong law enforcement. First Lady Nancy Reagan made this her crusade, founding the “Just Say No” campaign aimed at school aged children. During the 1980’s drug arrests in the United States rose 126%.
In the midst of this fervor, Congress passed a bi-partisan bill that was approved with almost no consideration of scientific evidence or the realistic consequences in money and human lives.
Looking back over the last three decades, we are seeing that this law disproportionately affects young black men. Statistics show that African-American men are more often targeted by law enforcement for drug related offenses. Almost 80% of the person’s sentenced under this law are African-American, even though most crack users are not black.
This disproportionate impact on one race, coupled with the staggering 18.4 billion federal dollar drug-control budget in 2000, the public disillusionment with the War on Drugs—finding that in October 2008 3 out of 4 Americans thought it was a failure, and President Obama’s promise of reform; combined to give us the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that was signed into law by President Obama on August 3, 2010.
This new law increases the amount of crack cocaine triggering a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years to 28 grams and 280 grams is required to trigger the 10 year mandatory minimum. The law also eliminated the 5 year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
For those of you that think this is a liberal easy on crime law, the new law increases the penalties for drug offenses that involve vulnerable victims, violence or a number of other aggravating factors. The law will not be applied retroactively. And for those of you looking at the federal budget, take a look at this stat:
The estimate from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that it costs $25,895 a year to house each prisoner. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, eliminating the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine would reduce the prison population by over 13,000 in 10 years.
That is a nice chunk of change to put towards something else that might make a difference in the lives of United States citizens.