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June 11, 2006

Reflecting 20 years after the crack panic

Reacting to this recent Washington Post article about the twenty-year anniversary of the death of University of Maryland (and then soon-to-be Boston Celtic) basketball star Len Bias, a fellow sentencing nerd (as he wished to be described) sent me this insightful commentary:

The article focuses on the role of Bias' death in shattering the perception of cocaine as being benign drug.  As the article puts it, "Twenty years ago, the death of Len Bias horrified the sports world and was a major factor in reduced recreational cocaine use among young people. It still reverberates across the Washington region."  Yesterday, there was a ceremony entitled a Vigil for Lost Promise where Bias' mother, "school choirs, drug enforcement agents and hundreds of grieving relatives of other victims [joined] in a tearful candlelight commemoration in Arlington of those killed by the scourge of drugs."

Of course, as a sentencing nerd, I remember some of the sentencing consequences of Bias' death that the Post * oddly * neglected. It was the summer of 1986.  Congress had passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, but the newly minted United States Sentencing Commission had not yet promulgated its first set of Guidelines. At this delicate time in sentencing history, Bias' death galvanized Congress into action.  Unfortunately, Congress acted by passing what many people view as the harsh mandatory minimums of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which were many people also believe were largely disconnected from sound research and rational policy.  See, e.g., Eric E. Sterling, The Sentencing Boomerang: Drug Prohibition Politics and Reform, 40 Vill. L. Rev. 383 (1995).

As a part of this Act and allegedly in the name of Bias, Congress implemented the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between crack and powder cocaine.  The Commission modeled its initial Guidelines on that ratio and the rest is, unfortunately, history.  It all started twenty years ago this month.  Twenty years.  At the government's discretion, 20 years is also the minimum sentence for a defendant with a previous felony drug conviction (say, for selling a small amount of marijuana) who distributed 50 grams of crack.

June 11, 2006 at 10:07 PM | Permalink


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I'm just a 49 yr old white female who has
been in the Texas Criminal Justice system for the past 15 years over $20 worth of crack cocaine. Yes, you heard me, TWENTY DOLLARS worth of crack cocaine. I've done a number of those years
in prison. Knowing nothing about addiction back then, I accepted deferred adjudication and
when I failed to complete it, was sentenced
to 15 years. I will finally be off parole in
October of this year and was wondering about
the new bills on the disparity between crack
and powder cocaine sentencing guidelines. I should not have been given such a stiff pen-
alty, therefore would not have had the fees
and inconveniences of office visits, loss of
time with my child, lost wages, etc . Any

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