Correcting the rap on crack

November 09, 2007

It's taken Congress 12 years to restore a measure of fairness to federal sentences imposed on defendants caught with crack cocaine. That's how long it has been since the U.S. Sentencing Commission, drug policy experts, researchers, attorneys and some judges determined that there was no factual basis for crack use to warrant harsher sentences than those for powder cocaine.

New guidelines that would end the disparity in cocaine sentences went into effect last week, and unlike in years past, Congress didn't object. But the same relief should be extended to the thousands who were imprisoned under this flawed sentencing scheme.

The new guidelines would reduce the average sentence for a crack user from 10 years, one month to eight years, 10 months, a change that would mean 3,800 fewer inmates in federal prison in 15 years. But the Sentencing Commission's work isn't finished.

The panel meets Tuesday to decide if it should make the new guidelines retroactive, and it should - but with conditions. Judges have raised concerns about the impact of the potential release of 19,500 inmates (including 279 sentenced in Maryland) on the court system. The panel should limit reconsideration of a sentence to the change in the crack guidelines, and should let a judge decide if a defendant must attend this hearing.

The 1987 federal tough-on-crack sentencing guidelines were an overreaction, some say, to the death the year before of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, who overdosed not on crack but on cocaine powder. At the time, crack was demonized as a more addictive form of cocaine that was spurring a wave of drug-induced violence.

First-time offenders - often minority drug addicts from the inner city - paid the price: They faced a mandatory five years for possessing a small amount of crack. Meanwhile, defendants caught with 100 times more powder cocaine received much less prison time.

America's prison population tripled over the next two decades, even as the sentencing panel realized its error and tried to reform its guidelines. Research and practice have since shown just how wrong everyone was about crack: Its purported harmfulness was overstated, its ability to fuel crime was unsubstantiated, and a disproportionate number of minorities, mostly users and not big dealers, suffered the consequences.

In short: All the reasons for locking up crack users longer didn't pan out.

To now deny relief to defendants who were sentenced under those unfair policies would perpetuate the disparity the new guidelines are meant to correct.

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