Rocks and Powder: Will Congress Fix Drug Sentencing?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about a new bill designed to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession.

Slate.com has a new article that focuses on the inter-branch governmental significance of the legislation. It provides some good background. Here are the highlights:

The 100-to-1 penalty ratio dates from 1986, when lawmakers established mandatory minimum sentences in response to widespread fear of a crack epidemic. For years judges have railed against the heavy crack sentences as unfair, and Congress has considered amending them before. What’s different this time is that the judges are doing more than complaining. Seizing on a Supreme Court decision that expanded their discretion over sentencing, judges have justified less harsh punishments for some crack offenders by trumpeting the sentencing scale’s many faults. And rather than ignoring the judges or trying to silence them, Congress may actually be listening, for a change…

Federal judges have long blasted the 100-to-1 ratio for punishing street-corner crack peddlers more harshly than major powder traffickers. But the biggest judicial gripe has been that the disproportionate penalties treat African-Americans unfairly. Blacks account for 80 to 90 percent of defendants convicted of crack offenses; whites and Hispanics for more than 70 percent of powder offenders. In 1992, one federal appellate judge said that the 100-to-1 ratio “makes the war on drugs look like a ‘war on minorities.’ “…

Then last year the Supreme Court issued a blockbuster ruling on sentencing, United States v. Booker. In Booker, the court found that mandatory sentencing guidelines violate a defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial (by requiring courts to assign a sentence based on facts found by judges, after the jury has issued a conviction). The federal sentencing guidelines, mandatory since they went into effect in 1987, became merely “advisory.” Many trial judges saw Booker as authorization to renew the attack on the 100-to-1 ratio because of its impact on black defendants…

But three appellate courts around the country have refused to go along. They have thrown out the reduced sentences for crack offenders…

The proposed change to the crack-vs.-powder sentencing scale doesn’t reflect a newfound lenient disposition. Recalibrating the 100-to-1 ratio is an easy call because the crack penalties have become an embarrassment. Still, it’s nice to see a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers taking a cue from the judiciary. The legitimacy of both branches is enhanced if they are seen as engaging each other rather than constantly clashing.

If you have any doubts about the importance of the issue, here are some highlights from an earlier post:

  • Federal prison inmates whose most serious conviction was a drug crime rose from 4,749 in 1980 to 77,867 in 2004. (1540%) Source: Maguire, Kathleen and Ann L.Pastore, eds. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. Available: http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/ [Retrieved 7/3/05].
  • State prison inmates whose most serious conviction was a drug crime rose from 19,000 in 1980 to 246,100 in 2001. (1195%) Source: Prisoners in 2002 & Prisoners in 1994, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pubalp2.htm#Prisoners [Retrieved 7/3/05]
  • Jail inmates whose most serious charge was a drug crime rose from 20,420 in 1983 to 155,249 in 2002. (660%) Source: Maguire, Kathleen and Ann L.Pastore, eds. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. Available: http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/ [Retrieved 7/3/05].
  • From 1986 to 1999 the average term drug offenders entering prison could expect to serve rose from an average 30 months to 66 months. (120%) Source: Federal Drug Offenders, 1999 with Trends, 1984-99, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/fdo99.htm [Retrieved 7/3/05]