The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 resulted from a powerful combination of social and political forces. The war on drugs fervor of the 1980s (and ’90s), the emergence of crack cocaine and the growing political popularity of mandatory sentences, especially for drugs and drug-related crimes, all seemed to reinforce one another. The cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias and the violence that accompanied the crack epidemic only added to the reaction.
Among the results were some unfortunate and mostly unintended consequences. Get-tough crime laws, of the kind that would make “zero tolerance” a familiar and ultimately discredited term, left little room for judicial discretion or common-sense distinctions. One result was to waste scarce and expensive prison space on nonviolent drug offenders.
Another was the passage of federal laws on crack so out of proportion with penalties for possession of the powder form of the drug as to defy simple reason, not to mention constitutional principles of equal treatment. In effect, if not intent, the laws constituted a kind of race and class warfare: Mostly poor, mostly black drug users typically buy the cheaper crack, while powder cocaine is historically the drug of choice for mostly white, mostly affluent users. Yet it took 100 times the amount of powder to trigger the same mandatory 10-year prison sentence as was imposed for crack possession.
Congress belatedly addressed that gross inequity last year in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. And while there still are some inexplicable disparities, the gap has been narrowed dramatically.
The practical and problematic result is that the amendment became retroactive Nov. 1, meaning as many as 12,000 federal prisoners could qualify for release under the new guidelines. That prospect has to give everybody pause, whatever one’s convictions about fairness in sentencing.
Some drug offenders, of course, will be ineligible for release — because of the amounts for which they were sentenced, or the criminal records they already had accumulated before they went to prison on drug charges.
A federal probation officer in Macon told the Ledger-Enquirer’s Jim Mustian that there are about 20 prisoners from Georgia’s Middle District who might be eligible, but that “it is the judge’s ultimate decision after considering a number of factors whether or not they are released immediately.”
The issue here is not leniency, but fairness. Small-time crack users shouldn’t be treated like drug kingpins under a law affluent coke snorters never had to worry about.
— Online: www.ledger-enquirer.com