Monday, June 7, 2010

Build More Prisons

Since 1986 there has been a huge sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. This stems from a combination of politicians getting tough on crime and media hype. You can read more about the history here.

Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are different forms of the same drug, and have similar effects on the brain and nervous system. Federal law, however, sets a 100 to one sentencing disparity between the two forms. This means that distribution of just five grams of crack cocaine (about a thimble full) yields a five year mandatory minimum sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same five year sentence. Crack cocaine is the only drug for which there is a federal mandatory minimum sentence for mere possession.
This sentencing disparity, enacted in 1986 at the height of drug war hysteria, was based largely on the myth that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and that it was instantly addictive and caused violent behavior. Since then, copious amounts of scientific evidence and an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission have shown that these assertions were not supported by sound data and were exaggerated or outright false.

The crack/powder disparity fuels racial disparities. In 2006, 82% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were black, and only 8.8% were white - even though more than two thirds of people who use crack cocaine are white. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has found that “sentences appear to be harsher and more severe for racial minorities than others as a result of this law. The current penalty structure results in a perception of unfairness and inconsistency.”

Realizing the inequity involved, there have been some remedies made. Some defendents had their sentences reviewed with the possibility of having their sentence reduced.

In the meantime, Congress needs to act because only it can change the mandatory minimum sentences it created. The vast majority of proposals and ideas have been to reduce the crack cocaine sentencing to match that of powder cocaine. But not everyone agrees with that. Rep Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland has twice submitted this bill, entitled the Powder-Crack Cocaine Penalty Equalization Act, once in 2007 and again in 2009. His solution is to raise the sentences for powder cocaine to match those of crack cocaine.

Yeah, like that's going to fix anything.

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