Powder cocaine is generally speaking a drug of white people.
Crack cocaine is generally a drug of black people.
Everybody knows that.
For more than ten years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has known that the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder have resulted in unfair disparities in sentencing. Possessing five grams of crack meant five years, but it took five hundred grams of powder to get you five years. Crack penalties were three to six times more severe — ballooning the prison population.
So the Sentencing Commission changed the guidelines, and held hearings Tuesday on applying the new guidelines retroactively to 19,500 inmates now imprisoned in federal facilities under the old, and effectively racist guidelines.
The Bush Justice Department objects. No surprise there. But the argument against releasing people unfairly rotting away in prison is eye-opening:
In testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal prison sentences and recently established more lenient guidelines for future crack cocaine offenders, the administration implored commissioners to forgo making the policy retroactive so that 19,500 inmates would be eligible to have their sentences reduced.
Such an action would backlog the courts and flood halfway houses with hardened criminals who are not prepared to reenter society, Justice Department officials said. “My concern is about the future and about the unforeseen consequences of releasing such large numbers of convicted drug offenders into vulnerable communities in a relatively short period of time,” said Gretchen C.F. Shappert, a U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Let’s pause and ponder Shappert’s vision. She transforms the vision of prisoners freed from unjustly harsh incarcerations into a vision of hordes of — you know, those people — swarming into her fair towns and cities. Is that not equivalent to someone saying, at the end of World War II, that repatriating interred Japanese would wreak havoc in California?
What an ugly argument. Of course, this should not surprise us.
Sadly, the Commission’s reassurances to Ms. Shappert fail to reassure me, much less 19,500 prisoners:
But that assertion was disputed by federal judges, public defenders, activists and several of the commissioners, who, in asking pointed questions to Shappert and other officials, appeared to indicate a willingness to approve making the new, lenient guidelines retroactive.
After Shappert suggested that violent criminals would go free, Commissioners Ruben Castillo and Beryl A. Howell took issue with some of Shappert’s comments, and with statements by other members of the administration.
Castillo said eligibility for sentence reduction did not mean that inmates would automatically have their incarceration time cut, and that Shappert and her colleagues would probably be successful in making sure that violent criminals do not win appeals for release. “Isn’t there a chance that you would win some of those challenges?” he asked.
Howell’s remarks to Shappert were sharper. “I have been quite troubled by the department’s letter that says the unexpected release of 20,000 crack offenders” would clog the courts and wreak havoc on communities, she said, referring to a letter from the Justice Department to the commission. “That is totally wrong.”
In truth, she said, many of the 19,500 would not get the sentence reductions they seek, and even fewer would be released. But even if all were granted relief, Howell said, the process would take seven to 10 years for most, a far lesser burden on the courts.
“By our estimate,” Howell said to Shappert about inmates likely to be released into her Charlotte area district, “the most will be 40 or 42 people,” not the hundreds estimated by the prosecutor.