The right sentence

The Washington Post looks toward the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity with some ambivalence. It appears that they failed to consider whether prison sentences are an effective tool for addressing the harm associated with crack use.

IN THE 1980s, entire communities were devastated by the addiction and violence that accompanied crack, a smokable form of cocaine. Congress reacted by passing extraordinarily tough laws, including one that mandated a minimum prison sentence of five years for those in possession of as little as five grams of crack. Those arrested with 50 grams were automatically slapped with a 10-year sentence.

This supposed solution, backed at the time by many in the Congressional Black Caucus, turned out to be destructive also. Tens of thousands of black men — many of them first-time offenders with no history of violent crime — found themselves behind bars for inordinately long periods. White and Hispanic offenders — those most often collared for powder cocaine violations — had to be caught with 100 times the amount of powder to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentences.

. . .

smoking crack delivers a faster, more intense high than snorting powder and that this high is more short-lived, thus compelling most crack users to seek additional doses of the drug. The differences in addiction rates between crack and powder are not enormous, but they are real, and the study also notes that crack users often experience faster rates of physical deterioration than do those who consume powder. The report notes that roughly one-fourth of crack offenders are associated with violence, and that this rate exceeds that for powder cocaine offenders. As in the 1980s, predominantly African American communities continue to bear the brunt of the crime and addiction brought on by this awful drug.

These facts suggest that there should be some difference in the penalties for crack and powder cocaine, but how much? This is a difficult question to answer with precision, so perhaps the best solution would be to eliminate the mandatory minimums for both crack and powder and build into the sentencing guidelines tougher penalty ranges for crack that judges could apply on a case-by-case basis

One thought on “The right sentence

  1. Prison is such an ineffective response to addiction regardless of the 'nastiness' of the drug. If it were a useful approach the US and the UK would lead the world in terms of good outcomes for our addicts, for we put so very many of them in jail.In fact going to jail can sometimes be a useful introduction to addictive drugs. We treat people at my workplace for addictions which began during a sentence for some other crime.


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