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Editorial: A step toward more sensible drug sentencing

President Barack Obama was right last week to commute the sentences of eight federal inmates serving time for crack cocaine offenses. There is a reason the executive branch has the power to issue commutations and pardons. Used proportionately, they provide a relief valve to address unintended consequences of laws. The president and Congress must now find a way to help thousands of convicts who remain imprisoned under similar unjust sentences.

Congress established harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug crimes in the 1980s amid the crack cocaine epidemic. The guidelines helped to standardize punishments, but they also set up a tremendous disparity between the sentences for crack offenses, which occurred more often in black and low-income communities, and those for powder cocaine, more popular among affluent, white users. Despite the fact that there is no chemical difference between the two drug forms, people convicted of crack cocaine-related crimes received sentences that were 100 times more harsh than those given to powder cocaine offenders. That essentially meant a low-level crack dealer or his girlfriend who hid drugs could receive more prison time than a powder cocaine kingpin.

Approved in 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was a bipartisan deal that sought to correct a policy with unjust consequences. It reduced the sentencing disparity to 18:1, a good but far from perfect fix. But it did not go far enough. It was not retroactive and left convicts and suspects who were charged, but not yet prosecuted, without protection.

Last week, Obama correctly utilized one of the most powerful privileges of his office to commute the sentences of the crack offenders, who included a Tampa man and two other Floridians who each had served at least 16 years in prison. But nearly 9,000 inmates nationwide remain imprisoned under similar circumstances. A bipartisan bill that would provide retroactive relief for some offenders and allow judges to revisit sentences is making its way through Congress. Lawmakers should pass it, giving particular consideration to nonviolent offenders. Doing so would save taxpayers millions of dollars and align the sentences with what the new law indicates is fair. If legislators fail, the president should step in.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups also must remain watchful of mandatory minimum sentences handed down for other drug crimes such as those involving methamphetamines. Without oversight, the same sort of sentencing disparity that became problematic for crack cocaine offenders could crop up for a new population.

Editorial: A step toward more sensible drug sentencing 12/23/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 23, 2013 4:17pm]
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