Twenty Years of Unfair Sentencing

Yesterday, NPR's "Morning Edition" took a non-celebratory look at the twentieth anniversary of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 -- the law that responded to mindless fear about crack cocaine by creating harsh mandatory minimum sentences for crack, and by irrationally designating crack as 100 times more evil than powder cocaine (i.e., a gram of crack gets the same sentence as 100 grams of powder). The story (about four minutes of listening time) quotes Eric Sterling, who helped write the law for the House Judiciary Committee, and who now speaks out (pdf) against the unfair sentences that the law compels.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission wants Congress to fix the crack-powder sentencing disparity (pdf). Even conservative Senator Jeff Sessions wants to implement a partial reform. The ACLU weighs in with this comprehensive report (pdf).

The story notes that the Third Circuit recently held that district judges have the freedom after the Booker decision to adjust crack sentences to account for the disparity. That's good news, but the story omits the bad news: other courts, including (perhaps most prominently) the Seventh Circuit, have told district judges that Congress wants sentencing disparities, and that judges should defer to that legislative directive. We can only hope the Supreme Court will soon resolve the conflict by holding that Booker means what it says: judges now have the power to sentence fairly, even if the federal sentencing guidelines would suggest an unfair sentence.

Still, setting aside the sentencing guidelines issue, the Supreme Court has shown little interest in disturbing mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Will legislators ever stop pandering to the Justice Department (and to voters who approve of laws that disproportionately harm black defendants (pdf)) and reverse the ill-conceived law that was enacted two decades ago?

< The Paranoid Style: Irony from National Review | The Power of Negative Branding: Carville Gets It on Webb >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort: