Congress did not go far enough to rectify the problems with our drug laws.
The Fair Sentencing Act, which President Obama signed on Aug. 3, attempts to fix the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Since most crack users are black and most powder cocaine users are white, the sentencing disparity has had huge racially discriminatory consequences, as it has filled our prisons with young black males.
Under the Fair Sentencing Act, the disparity is now down to 18-1. Some legislators fought to do away with it entirely by putting sentencing for crack offenses on a par with those for powder cocaine. But they were shot down.
The Fair Sentencing Act does some other good things. It eliminates the mandatory five-year sentence for first-time possessors of crack, and now someone convicted of crack possession would have to have a lot more of it before facing long sentences.
But the new law is also not retroactive. Individuals locked down for long stretches under the old law will have to serve their sentences. Even worse, those with charges that were pending before Obama signed the new law will be sentenced under the old guidelines.
And in passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress missed an opportunity to do away with mandatory minimum drug sentences altogether.
Since the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act became law with its mandatory minimums, the United States has seen one of the most intense periods of incarceration in modern human history. Thousands of people have received long prison sentences for possession of small quantities of crack cocaine. This has not, despite the intent, nabbed large numbers of kingpin drug merchants, and certainly has not stopped illegal drug use. If you want illegal drugs tonight or tomorrow, you can likely get some.
The United States now has more than 2 million people in prison partially as a result of these laws. Black men make up a disproportionate percentage of this population, in large part because of the sentencing disparity.
Congress should take a new approach.
It should do away with mandatory minimums and allow judges to treat every person as an individual. It should invest in the lives of young people so they don’t get involved in drugs. And it should focus on substance abuse treatment for those who get hooked.
We need to stop building prisons and start building communities.
Brian Gilmore, a lawyer and poet, resides in Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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