Sentencing Commission Does the Right Thing

It’s a good step:

The agency that sets guidelines for federal prison sentences voted unanimously on Tuesday to lighten punishments retroactively for some crimes related to crack cocaine, a decision that could eventually affect about 19,500 inmates and mean freedom for some within months. 

The 7-to-0 vote by the United States Sentencing Commission was intended to help narrow the stark disparity that has existed for two decades between sentences for crack cocaine and those linked to the powder form of the drug, a disparity written into law two decades ago when it was widely assumed that crack was more dangerous than the powdered drug.

Since then, experts have concluded that there are more similarities than differences, and many people involved in sentencing have lamented the fact that black people are disproportionately affected by crack-related sentences. Statistics show that about 85 percent of the federal inmates behind bars for crack offenses are black.

There’s a long way to go, of course, particularly in New York State, where it could be argued that our drug policies function akin to Jim Crow.

Donna Lieberman’s testimony to The New York State Commission On Sentencing Reform on behalf of the NY Civil Liberties Union last month hits the nail on the head. It’s worth reading her whole presentatation.

It is well documented that there are gross racial and ethnic disparities in New York State’s prison population, particularly among those incarcerated for drug offenses. There is also voluminous evidence demonstrating the causes of these disparities, including selective arrest and prosecution, inadequate legal representation, and the absence of judicial discretion in the sentencing process. And yet the Commission’s preliminary report is silent on the issue of race…

The racial disparity in New York’s prison population has increased dramatically since the mid-1980s and the advent of the “war on drugs.”

There were 886 persons incarcerated for drug offenses in 1980. Of these individuals, 32 percent were Caucasian; 38 percent were African American; and 29 percent were Latino. In 1992, the year in which the state reported the highest number of commitments for drug offenses, 5 percent of those incarcerated were Caucasian; 50 percent were African American; and 44 percent were Latino.

The demographics of the inmate population serving time for drug offenses in 2000 had changed little from the data reported in 1992…

The racial and ethnic disparities among the population incarcerated for drug offenses in New York State do not reflect higher rates of offending among African Americans and Latinos.

In a relatively recent government study, a total of 1.8 million adults in New York (about 13 percent of the total adult population) reported using illegal drugs in the preceding year. Of those reported users of illicit drugs, 1.3 million – or 72 percent — were white.

Moreover, research indicates that whites are the principal purveyors of drugs in the state. When the National Institute of Justice surveyed a sample of more than 2,000 recently arrested drug users from several large cities, including Manhattan, the researchers learned that “respondents were most likely to report using a main source who was of their own racial or ethnic background regardless of the drug considered.” Upon closer analysis these findings reveal that there are, indeed, many more drug sales in white communities than there are in communities of color, but they tend to escape detection because they take place behind closed doors in homes and offices.

Nearly ten years ago, then-President Clinton convened a national dialogue on race. Within days, the Monica Lewinsky story broke and the national dialogue went into the wastepaper basket of history.

I never thought that this confluence of events was a coincidence. One decade later this conversation, already many many decades overdue, should revive in the wake of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s motion in the right direction.

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