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August 2, 2013

"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"

The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”

This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.

Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.

But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.

As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.

August 2, 2013 at 09:31 AM | Permalink


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I stumbled upon this article a few months back, which was quite eye-opening:


I've always believed that the 100-to-1 ratio was based on nothing more than junk science at best or racial bias at worst. The article contains an interview with Eric E. Sterling, Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989. He explains how the 1980s drug-law panic was "hyperbole piled on top of exaggeration."

It's a great article. One worthy of a read.

Posted by: Evan | Aug 2, 2013 10:48:46 AM

Like the listing of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, the disparate sentencing treatment of offenses involving chemically identical base and hydrochloride cocaine is not evidence or science based. It is "reefer madness" mentality. We are a very primitive society.

Posted by: Samantha Estridge | Aug 2, 2013 1:00:47 PM

"Republicans raged"

So, it was a "Democratic" leaning proposal with the POTUS the head of the party.

More can be done, yes, but good to see some note that some things were done, helped by the "first black president."

Posted by: Joe | Aug 2, 2013 1:08:10 PM

I am a black female who was sentence under the old law in 2003 to 135 months for 50 grams of crack. I received a sentence reduction of 15 months in 2008 and it was said that I was surpose to have been released instead. However I had a ten year mandatory minimum sentence that kept me locked up until I went to the half way house December 2010. Now i'm out on probation for five more years of my life and I don't owe one cent. I thought that we all who have served our time more then we should have would be finally set free of all of this but we are still caught in the cross fire! What about us that are out on probation who shouldn't be?

Posted by: Sherry A. Byrd | Aug 6, 2013 2:44:16 PM

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