Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bob Ray Sanders: Unjust drug sentences are still a problem

Cocaine, regardless of which disguise it wears, is a monster that most often destroys the lives of its users and sellers while devastating their loved ones.

With the violent drug wars of the 1980s that saw young gang members killing one another and helpless innocent individuals caught in the crossfire, it was only natural that political leaders tried to find effective weapons to use in their “war on drugs.”

State and national lawmakers wanted to be known as being tough on crime, so they passed legislation that added stiffer penalties for the possession and sale of drugs.

Unfortunately, Congress overreacted to the problem and created an unjust, discriminatory federal sentencing policy that still haunts us to this day, even though there have been recent attempts to rectify that wrong.

Lawmakers decided 20 years ago that crack cocaine was 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine and, therefore, sentencing for crack crimes should be 100 times greater than similar crimes involving the powder form of the drug.

A person convicted of possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine, for example, would be sentenced to 10 years in prison under the mandated sentencing guidelines.

But a defendant accused of possessing powder cocaine would have to be caught with 5,000 grams of the drug to receive a similar 10-year sentence.

The law instantly was denounced by many as biased, because its application affected black defendants more harshly than Anglos. It is common knowledge that powder cocaine is the drug of choice for white offenders, while black users (80 percent) were more likely to choose crack.

Despite complaints of unfairness, even from some federal judges and former Attorney General Janet Reno, Congress was slow to correct its error. Finally last year, lawmakers passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which President Obama signed, that reduced the sentencing ratio between crack and powder to 18-to-1 from 100-to-1.

That’s still out of balance, but it’s better than it was.

Last summer the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to make the law, which went into effect last week, retroactive. More than 12,000 inmates are affected, and hundreds were immediately eligible for release because of the time served.

But inmates caught up in this mess will not be released automatically. They have to present their cases to a judge who can consider other issues (such as their behavior while in prison and whether they availed themselves of counseling) before ordering release. Adding to their dilemma is a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that says motions for early release cannot be handled by court-appointed or taxpayer-funded attorneys.

That’s about as crazy as the original law.

To their credit, some U.S. attorneys have given eligible inmates prepared forms they can fill out and submit to a judge.

This process should be made as simple as possible, so that no affected person spends more time in prison than absolutely necessary. Every extra day behind bars for these individuals who were wronged by our system is a further injustice.

I know those in prison are responsible for the actions that got them in trouble with the law, but they are not responsible for the bad law that unjustly added more years to their confinement.

We can only hope that once they get out, they will be able to avoid the monster cocaine — no matter what form it takes.

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