Newly Released Crack Cocaine Defendants: How Are They Faring?

The Washington Post today reports on some crack defendants who were able to leave prison early due to the recent retroactive sentencing guideline reductions. They seem to be coping pretty well, considering the changed world they've returned to after a decade or more behind bars.

More than 7,000 crack cocaine offenders ... have received reduced sentences since March, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission put retroactive sentence guidelines into effect to offset what the commission felt were overly harsh punishments for crack cocaine related crimes, and it is an open question whether they will succeed or return to a life behind bars.

....Nearly 90 percent of those who received the tough sentences for crack cocaine were black men and women. Most users and dealers of powder cocaine are white and Latino.

There were 19,500 federal inmates serving sentences for crack when the reduction went into effect in March. Many aren't eligible for the reduction for a variety of technical reasons. For others, mandatory minimum sentencing laws which trump the guidelines will prevent them from getting a reduced sentence. The Government files objections to scores of requests, arguing either that the reduction doesn't apply to a particular defendant or the court should exercise its discretion and deny the relief.

The recent reduction is but a first baby step towards what's needed to reintroduce fairness into our federal criminal justice system. [More...]

The mandatory minimum sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses need to be scrapped altogether. As to powder and crack, the penalties need to be equalized at the current powder levels.

We don't need bills like Joe Biden's S. 1711, the "Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007" which tags on tens of millions of dollars to beef up prosecutions in the war on drugs.

Biden's bill provides (per year for 2008 and 2009) $36 million for prosecutor and DEA agent salaries, $20 million for salaries of agents conducting drug investigations for the Treasury Department's Financial Crime Enforcement Network and the Department of Homeland Security and $0 for defenders. In all, a paltry $15 million is authorized for prevention and treatment at the state and federal levels.

As to the crack cocaine penalty reductions, Biden's bill expressly states it is not retroactive. Unfortunately, Barack Obama has signed on as a co-sponsor (as did Hillary.)

The best bill is Charlie Rangel's House bill, "The Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 2007"H.R. 460 (with 24 co-sponsors.) It reduces the crack penalties to the current level for powder -- period.

< When Should We Kill? The Inconsistent Penalty of Death | No Shameless Hacks Here >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Excellent Post (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by Katherine Graham Cracker on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 06:02:59 PM EST
    "The mandatory minimum sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses need to be scrapped altogether. As to powder and crack, the penalties need to be equalized at the current powder levels."  Can't not be said often enough

    All the drug war is a war on people and an excuse to hassle them.  Drug use as part of the criminal justice system is expensive and frankly stupid.
    I think if people understood the waste of money involved in enforcing drug law they would place the priority very low.

    Biden should be ashamed of himself.  I don't think modeling yourself after Nelson Rockefeller is a good idea.

    Makes my stomach turn... (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Alec82 on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 06:26:09 PM EST
    ...whenever I think about the amount of money wasted.  

     Here is how you get the initiative system to solve this mess: pass along the cost of enforcement entirely to the federal government for the non-violent drug trade...possession and sales.  Pass enough initiatives, and the resources of the federal government will be spread so thin they will be forced to reform.

     Ah, in dreams...

    More important than the money.... (5.00 / 4) (#3)
    by kdog on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 06:58:08 PM EST
    are the lives destroyed.  The kids growing up without a mom or dad, the heartbreak of a parent whose child is wasting away in a cage, the crushing of souls daily in the penal system.

    The money lost is astronomical, but the human toll is priceless.


    well put, check out (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:10:54 PM EST
    Drug addiction (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by samtaylor2 on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:18:09 PM EST
    I read a great article in my ethics class in medical school about starting to think of drug addiction as a long term health concern instead of a crime.  They showed that when we treated addiction as a long term health issue, and thus got LONG TERM CARE (think diabetes and insulin), the cost to our systm went down.  It was a strong message that these harsh penalties don't make any sense, if the goal is to reform people.

    I would love to see a thread on the legal aspects of taking away voting rights of fellons.


    I remember the crack epidemic (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by stillife on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:22:02 PM EST
    in the '80's.  I bought into it at the time.  Everybody was scared of crackheads and every day there was a new story in the Post or the Daily News about the horrors of crack abuse.  

    Several years ago, I read a book called "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things".  There was a chapter debunking the crack epidemic.  Not that it didn't exist, but it was overblown and used as a ploy by the Reagan administration to divert attention from their policies and to demonize urban poor people.  "Those people don't deserve our help!  Let them eat ketchup!"

    I believe drugs should be decriminalized.  Treatment, not incarceration, is the answer.  And our NY Rockefeller drug laws are appalling.  

    Agree but interesting fact (none / 0) (#8)
    by samtaylor2 on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:50:26 PM EST
    If you look at Prohibition, alchohol related health problems decreased drastically, and increased again when alcohol was made legal.  That being said, I agree that harsh crimininalization of drugs makes no sense

    Interesting (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by stillife on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 08:02:41 PM EST
    I would've thought the health problems would've been worse during the Prohibition due to bad quality booze.  And what about the violence associated with bootlegging?  Not to mention the rise of the Mafia in my old home town of Chicago.

    Whatever - I believe in decriminalization.  You can't legislate morality.  

    A society should be judged by how it treats its most unfortunate citizens, and by that standard, we're not doing too well.


    Upside down logic on alcoholic health. (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by wurman on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 09:41:18 PM EST
    During prohibition, drinkers didn't seek healthcare because it was illegal.

    Emergency room check-ins for delirium tremens, alcohol induced comas, and chug-a-lug choke & puke would drop to near zero.

    Your average RN in those days was educated at a "sisters of something or other" hospital & had bought-in to the concept of prohibition.  There was a moral component to it, so they would call the cops when a bathtub gin victim showed up at the old-time ER.

    In my own family, dad's mom was a prohibitionist, took the pledge at age 12 in the old country on a religious connection.  Mom's mom ran a gin mill & mom's dad operated a taxi service in a medium-sized town--if ya' get my drift--delivering those jugs of gin made Ol' Jim a well-to-do cab driver.

    Medical records are sometimes a counter-intuitive aspect of social behaviors.


    The drug problem masks the race problem (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon Jun 09, 2008 at 06:16:36 AM EST
    I play this little multiple choice test with supporters of drug prohibition and those sitting on the fence about it:

    Under which President did the Federal War on Drugs begin?

    Was it:

    1. Ronald Reagan?
    2. Richard Nixon?
    3. FDR?
    4. Woodrow Wilson?
    5. Teddy Roosevelt?

    Almost nobody can get it right, and it's simply because they cannot believe it. The answer is #4, Woodrow Wilson, who first signed into law the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

    96 years of DrugWar. But not just DrugWar, but RaceWar. Because the original targets of the legislation were deemed to be inherently criminal minorities that went bonkers under the influence and had to be curbed. The racial composition of our prison population is all the proof anyone needs to see how well it's worked all these years at suppressing the political power of minorities in this country; Junior wouldn't be in the White House had it not been partly for felony voter disenfranchisement.

    The Civil Rights movement giveth...while in the background, the DrugWar taketh away. Been like that for 96 years. Hasn't that been long enough?

    question (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jgarza on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:29:19 PM EST
    The mandatory minimum sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses need to be scrapped altogether. As to powder and crack, the penalties need to be equalized at the current powder levels.

    I thought mandatory minimums were unconstitutional?

    quite the contrary (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 07:52:11 PM EST
    they have been upheld many times against constitutional attacks.

    Another question? (none / 0) (#10)
    by sher on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 08:02:17 PM EST
    What's likely to happen under either Obama or McCain administration with these laws?

    There is a logic (none / 0) (#12)
    by jccamp on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 08:28:21 PM EST
    to sentencing disparity. Crack causes far more serious (and faster acting) dependency (than powdered coke). Follow that logic, and crack causes more strain on societal and medical resources and also causes more street crime, as people with dependencies steal to pay for drugs. Crack, like heroin, is more of an urban drug, while powdered coke is a yuppie/suburban thing. That's the rationale. One need not agree with it, but there was at least some thought put into the enhancements (for crack).

    Disparaging drug enforcement, as in (it's) "a war on people and an excuse to hassle them" ignores the issues, and is not a persuasive way to change things.

    The so-called war on drugs has created a huge bureaucracy and a constituency accustomed to entitlements. Sound familiar?

    Unlawful controlled substances need to be decriminalized and regulated. If it were not for the enforcement efforts, drugs would be dirt cheap. They should be provided at low or no cost. Remove the profit and you remove the incentives for criminals, including secondary crime to pay for drugs. We could create a support and treatment structure (for those so interested) for a fraction of the present expenditures.

    We went through this with the Volstead Act. It seems so simple. Now try to get a politician to attempt this, facing the opposition of the entitled group.

    I thought they found that (none / 0) (#14)
    by samtaylor2 on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 09:24:41 PM EST
    the effect of the drugs was not much different, and that is one of the reasons that they recommended decreasing sentensing before the 2 court cases.

    Yes (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by squeaky on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 10:15:41 PM EST
    They are the same. Both addictive, more or less depending on who you are.

    It's the method of ingestion (none / 0) (#18)
    by jccamp on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 10:58:15 PM EST
    that leads to greater dependency. Smoking crack (or heroin, etc) hits the body quicker and stronger, because it enters the bloodstream via the tiny capillaries in the lungs, instead of, say, through the outer layers of skin inside the nostrils.

    There is definitely a higher incidence of serious dependency with crack.

    Chemically, I believe that crack is actually less powerful than powdered coke (which makes it a better financial gainer for dealers...well, maybe for traffickers).


    And, depending on your (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by jccamp on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 11:07:03 PM EST
    definition, cocaine may not be addictive, in the sense of heroin or tobacco, which cause physical changes when withdrawn. Cocaine is definitely causes dependency though, even if it might be asserted that the changes upon withdrawal are mental or psychological, not physical.

    Some practitioners may not see the distinction. I only mention it since it has been debated by others.


    Cocaine definitly causes physical changes (none / 0) (#24)
    by samtaylor2 on Mon Jun 09, 2008 at 08:44:00 AM EST
    I lost a point on a test when I claimed the wrong physical change (I mean physiological when I say physical).

    It also needs to be understood (none / 0) (#13)
    by jccamp on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 08:35:37 PM EST
    that drug treatment, just like programs for alcohol abuse, will be ignored by some core group of people with dependencies. Throw all the money you want at drug abuse, and there will still be drug addicts and drug abusers, only now they will obtain their fix from the government. That's one of the trade-off's with decriminalization.

    There would also have to be some minimal statutory (criminal) regulation, such as penalties for providing minors with drugs, requiring mandatory drug testing before being handed your drug of choice, etc. There's some obvious privacy issues herein as well.

    Query: Mexico (none / 0) (#16)
    by Alec82 on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 09:41:22 PM EST
    Anyone wonder why Mexico's drug war woes (and Mexico is fighting a literal drug war at this point) aren't receiving much media attention? I consider it rather important.  I definitely don't want that fight spilling across the border.

    Actually, the genuine shooting (none / 0) (#21)
    by jccamp on Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 11:14:12 PM EST
    drug war in Mexico is really about the U S market.I guess one could describe all the dead police, dopers and innocent bystanders in Mexico as collateral damage, paid for by anyone in the States who buys unlawful drugs - at least the drugs which transit Mexico.

    Just another reason to legalize drugs here.


    Oops, sorry, miscalculated (none / 0) (#23)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon Jun 09, 2008 at 06:18:17 AM EST
    94 years. But that still 94 years too long.

    We are trying to remove people from (none / 0) (#25)
    by JSN on Mon Jun 09, 2008 at 08:52:52 AM EST
    the criminal justice system (CJS) and reconnect them with their mental health providers and drug treatment providers with some success but as someone pointed out when the individual refuses treatment and is considered to be a threat to themselves or others jail may be the only option. Some jails are very good at preventing suicide and others have a very poor record.

    Some people have to be detained in order to protect them from themselves (and in some cases others) while they are being treated. Medical detention is a very complex issue that depends on where you live. Our experience is that the MH hospital is overcrowded and they typically refuse to admit the low risk cases (and when their risk assessment is wrong the consequences can be fatal).

    I agree that mental heath and drug addiction are primarily health issues and should be treated as such but I did want to point out that there is a substantial population where it is not possible under present circumstances to keep them out of the CJS.