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Crack vs. cocaine: Correcting America's drug sentencing problems

While the criminal justice system was designed to be fair and predictable, it does not always live up to this goal. This is especially true when it comes to the sentencing rules and guidelines for federal drug offenses. Drug laws have become exponentially stricter over the last few decades, fueled largely by zealous politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime.

As a result, non-violent drug offenders often receive disproportionately long prison sentences because of mandatory minimum laws and sentencing disparities that do not allow judges to use their own discretion. Recently, President Obama brought renewed attention to this problem by commuting the sentences of eight federal inmates who had been convicted for crack-cocaine offenses. Some say the President's actions are a good start, but that thousands of other inmates deserve the same relief.

To better put this situation in context, you may need a brief history lesson. During the crack-cocaine panic in the 1980s, legislators passed sentencing laws based on the false belief that crack-cocaine was considerably more dangerous than powder cocaine. In reality, the difference between the two drugs had more to do with race and socioeconomic status than potency. Crack is cheaper and largely used in poor African-American neighborhoods. Powder cocaine is often considered a drug of the white and wealthy.

Nonetheless, the two drugs had a 100:1 sentencing disparity. In other words, someone convicted for possession of five grams of crack would receive the same sentence as another person in possession of 500 grams of cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity down to about 18:1, but the two drugs are still sentenced differently and the changes were not applied retroactively to those already in prison.

The eight inmates who had their sentences commuted by President Obama were all victims of the 100:1 disparity and thus serving harsh and lengthy sentences. This was a step in the right direction, but there are thousands more inmates who suffered similar injustices and remain in prison. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to be opposed to retroactive application of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

America incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country. This is, in large part, due to unjustifiably harsh sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Until or unless we change these laws and correct these injustices, America's title as the "land of the free" will be a dubious distinction.

Source: The New York Times, "Crack Cocaine Limbo," Linda Greenhouse, Jan. 5, 2013

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