Closer to sentencing sanity

CLOSER TO SENTENCING SANITY…. Sentencing disparities when it comes to cocaine have been a national embarrassment for nearly a quarter-century. We’ve been dealing with an indefensible 100-to-1 ratio established in 1986 — a person caught selling five grams of crack will face the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Because the majority of crack convictions involve African Americans, while powder cocaine convictions tend to involve whites, there’s also an obvious racial component to the sentencing disparity.

The Obama administration strongly endorsed changing the law and ending the disparity altogether. Regrettably, Congress wouldn’t oblige. Lawmakers did, however, take a step in the right direction today, making the disparity less ridiculous.

Congress has changed a quarter-century-old law that has sent tens of thousands of blacks to prison for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the same amount of the drug in powder form.

House passage of what was called the “fair sentencing act” sends the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The sentencing disparity has been a 100-to-1 ratio. Now, it will be 18-to-1. The House was prepared to go further, but ending the disparity ran into trouble — where else? — in the Senate. As a result, the law will be vastly improved, though the disparity will remain a problem.

Let’s not, however, brush past how significant this is. The AP noted that the success of the Fair Sentencing Act marks “the first time in 40 years that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.”

That, alone, is pretty amazing. For over a generation, a vote like this would have been the subject of shameless “soft on crime” demagoguery. Instead, the Obama White House pressed hard for the change, with no real fear of political pushback, and Congress approved a significant improvement — in an election year — with no qualms about how this might be twisted into an attack ad.

David Dayen added, “[Y]ou know what we don’t so a lot of in this country? Reduce sentences. Check out the makeup of the world’s largest prison population and you’ll see what I mean. ‘Law ‘n’ Order’ and ‘Tough on Crime’ remain shibboleths used by politicians to hammer away at criminal sentencing reformists. So ANY change in a positive direction takes a ridiculous amount of work and struggle. This is a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

It is, indeed. And the fact that the right isn’t running around screaming about “Democrats love drug addicts” this afternoon also reflects meaningful progress when it comes to our public discourse on this issue.

Here’s some additional background on the details of the bill.