Monday, November 21, 2011

New Sentencing Measures Make for a Positive First Step to Correcting Cocaine Conviction Disparities and Prison Overcrowding

The nation's prison systems are in drastic need of reform. Many prisons have swelled well beyond capacity, which places a heavy burden on the inmates, prison officials, and the general public alike. Part of this problem is due to the harsh consequences that stem from crack cocaine convictions under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (the “Act”). The Act was a sweeping piece of legislation that was pushed as a part of the “War on Drugs,” and completely reshaped drug enforcement policy in the United States. One principal component of the Act was that it prescribed minimum sentences for certain types of first time drug offenses.

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, an individual convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence; conversely, an individual must be convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. An individual caught possessing only ten grams of crack cocaine was looking at a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Since the Act’s inception, people have criticized it for having a disproportionate negative impact on African-Americans. Crack cocaine tends to be cheaper to purchase and generally more accessible to African-Americans. On the other hand, users of powder cocaine are usually affluent Caucasians. In addition, the Act mandates five-year sentences for individuals possessing small amounts of crack cocaine. Since African-Americans are more likely to possess crack cocaine, they were also more likely to face imprisonment for carrying small quantities of crack cocaine. This second rationale is also a principal reason why prison populations have soared.

Prison overcrowding has become an increasing financial burden on states, and it has magnified in importance because the current economy has forced states to make sizeable budget cuts. According to estimates by the Bureau of Prisons, at the end of 2009, nearly 2,292,133 adults, or roughly one percent of the total United States population, were incarcerated in federal or state prisons and jails. Maintaining overcrowded prisons requires considerable state and federal government resources. The daily cost per inmate in 2009 was about $74.66, and this amount continues to grow. Based on these numbers, in 2009, the amount of money spent providing for an inmate was over $171 million alone. This amount does not even include other expenditures such as wages for correctional officers, and prison maintenance.

In August 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. This Act is designed to alleviate the problem of prison overcrowding as well as reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentence lengths. Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act terminates a mandatory sentence for simple crack cocaine possession. An individual must now be convicted of possessing at least 28 grams of crack cocaine in order to face a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Furthermore, an individual faces a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence only if convicted of possessing at least 280 grams of crack cocaine. Punishment for possession of powder cocaine is left undisturbed, and all of these changes apply to future convictions. These new penalties will surely not have such a disproportionate negative effect on African-Americans.

In April 2011, the Federal Sentencing Commission took the Act one step further and applied the provisions retroactively to individuals already incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses. Thousands of inmates are likely to be released throughout the next few years according to guidelines that ensure maximum public safety. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction to rectify the problem of prison overcrowding.

There is still a long ways to go to correct the problem of prison overcrowding; however, the Fair Sentencing Act and the Federal Sentencing Commission's decision make for a positive first step. Let us hope that the momentum continues and the criminal justice system is overhauled to focus on more than just incarceration.

Ryan Weir
Staffer, Criminal Law Brief

Image by Marco Gomes

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