Monday, December 17, 2007

Just A Little Tinkering

Adam Liptak has an interesting column up in today's NY Times on what at first glance looked like a dramatic turnaround on drug sentencing from the US Supreme Court and the US Sentencing Commission. Mr. Liptak looked more deeply into the situation and found that in reality, not much has changed.

There was an avalanche of sentencing news last week. The Supreme Court gave trial judges more power to show mercy, the United States Sentencing Commission gave almost 20,000 prisoners doing time on crack cocaine charges a good shot at early release, and even President Bush commuted a crack sentence.

The net effect: tinkering.

The United States justice system remains, by international standards at least, exceptionally punitive. And nothing that happened last week will change that.

The problem is that neither actions did anything about the minimum sentences required in drug cases nor the disparity between those sentences doled out for crack cocaine offenses and those doled out for powder cocaine.

The mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving five grams of crack — a little more than a sugar packet — remains five years. For powder, the five-year mandatory sentence does not kick in until 500 grams, or more than a pound.

Fifty grams of crack equals a guaranteed 10 years. It takes five kilograms of powder to mandate the same sentence. Five kilos is a lot of cocaine.

Mere possession of a relatively small quantity of crack means a five-year sentence. Possessing five grams of powder cocaine usually results in probation, said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

Indeed, the maximum sentence for simple possession of any drug but crack, including powder cocaine and heroin, is one year.

Why the disparity? Part of it is due to the furor over the sudden emergence of crack in the 1980's when it appeared unstoppable. The main reason, however, is a very simple and very ugly fact of American life: 85% of all crack users are black.

And the minimum sentences for crack are not likely to be changed anytime soon. Congress enacted the law in 1986 and Congress is where the change has to take place. Ironically, the increase in discretion given federal judges by the Supreme Court in sentencing will make it difficult to justify any further loosening of sentencing minimums.

So, ultimately, very little has changed, and the road to actual change has just been closed off.

Mighty suspicious, that.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home