Thursday, January 17, 2008
Cocaine is Cocaine: New Sentencing Guidelines
U.S. Supreme Court relaxes jail time for crack crimes.
In a little-noted ruling last month, the U.S. Supreme Court bowed to reality and restored a measure of sanity to cocaine sentencing guidelines. The Court ruled, on a 7-2 vote in the case of Kimbrough v. U.S., that federal judges had the discretion to reduce prison terms for crack-cocaine offenses.
The move was an effort by the Supreme Court to bring crack cocaine sentences more in line with sentencing guidelines for powdered cocaine. Many drug experts expressed relief, noting that the changes were long overdue. “There’s no scientific justification to support the current laws,” said National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Dr. Nora Volkow.
Writing for the majority, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the two substances in question “have the same physiological and psychotropic effects.” A number of federal judges have long advocated the change, the importance of which was demonstrated when the U.S. Sentencing Commission announced that as many as 20,000 federal inmates serving time for crack possession may be due for sentence reductions, based on the new ruling.
A 1986 law, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, reset mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine, allowing for as much as a 100-to-1 disparity between prison time for crack and prison time for powdered cocaine. As an article in the International Herald Tribune noted, the law allowed a prison term of “five years for trafficking in 5 grams of crack, or less than the amount in two packets of sugar. It would take 100 times as much cocaine [in powder form] to get the same sentence.”
Several bills with a similar aim have been introduced in Congress, including legislation jointly sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, which would revise the crack-powder sentencing ratio to 20-1.
This Alice-in-Wonderland situation was triggered by the cocaine-related death of college basketball star Len Bias in 1986. The widely publicized death set off a cocaine panic in America that quickly reached the White House and Congress. In addition, doctors and the press were busy wildly overestimating the number of handicapped “crack babies” being born. Craig Reinarman, author of the book, “Crack in America,” told the Associated Press: “You had politicians manipulating fear, and instead of being seen as a more direct mode of ingestion of a very old drug, [crack] became a demonic new substance.”
Moreover, civil rights advocates have long claimed that the sentencing structure is racist: Blacks prefer crack and Whites prefer powder, if arrest records are any indication. (Crack is produced by dissolving powdered cocaine and baking soda in water, then boiling away the water.)
According to Graham Boyd of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) drug law reform project, “This may be the first sentencing decision since the mid-1980s that actually talks about justice, that seems to have some blood in it.”
“There is a sense of a turning point,” Jack B. Weinstein, a federal district court judge in New York, told Newsweek. “The cost [of the current drug war] is tremendous, to the community and to taxpayers.”
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented in the case.