Presidential pardon demonstrates attitude shift in drug crime sentencing

During the 1980s, when the War on Drugs was at its height, Congress pushed through a series of sentencing laws requiring long mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of some drug offenses. These sentences have long been regarded as unfair according to some experts in criminal law, and, until relatively recently, there had been little enthusiasm among lawmakers to amend the rules requiring harsh prison time. Recent events indicate, however, that change may be on the way.

One of the most egregious injustices in federal criminal sentencing was the rule regarding prison time for those convicted of offenses related to crack cocaine. These rules, written when crack was emerging as the most significant drug threat among urban populations, required judges to sentence even non-violent offenders to years in prison. What is worse, these rules were specific to crack: a conviction for possessing or selling the same amount of powder cocaine would bring only a fraction of the sentence.

Fortunately, in 2011, Congress acted. The guidelines requiring harsh sentences for those convicted of crimes involving crack cocaine were rewritten. Although disparity remains between the treatment of crack and powder cocaine, it is far less pronounced.

While the amendment to the law was a welcome change, it did little to help those who had already been convicted and sentenced under the new guidelines. Recognizing that many people remain in prison after being sentenced under the 1980 guidelines, President Obama recently announced that he had commuted the sentences of eight people who had been convicted of crack related crimes. The commutations came because these offenders would have already been released from prison if they had been sentenced under the current guidelines.

The President's choice to commute these sentences is significant because it is the first time that the new rules have been applied to those sentenced under the previous guidelines. It sends a clear message to Congressional leaders that further action is needed to help the thousands of people who are still in prison because of unfair drug crime sentencing. Although the current political climate in Washington is such that sweeping reform is unlikely, bringing this issue to the forefront of national debate is important.

Unfortunately, the prospects for reform on the state level in Wisconsin are not favorable. Governor Scott Walker has refused to grant any pardon thus far, and has said he intends to pardon no one, even a man who served his country in combat.

If you are under investigation for a crime involving drugs, it is essential to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney. Criminal defense lawyers know the stakes involved in charges for drug crimes and they can provide invaluable advice about how to best protect your rights. Contact a criminal defense attorney today for more information.