To the People

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Revised Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines

A December decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission could possibly reduce the sentences of many inmates. The reason for the decision is to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

Judges could reduce sentences for nearly 20,000 inmates following the decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission -- an independent federal agency that advises all three branches of government on sentences. Advocates of the sentence reduction say it is only fair, but the Justice Department counters and says that the move will allow dangerous criminals back on the street.

The Justice Department is concerned "that so many people would be released all at once -- people who have shown that they are repeat offenders, and without the possibility of any kind of transition or re-entry program to bring them from prison back to the streets," Deborah Rhodes, an associate deputy attorney general, told CNN.

But lawyers and groups that have been pushing for the change in sentencing disagree. They say that most of these prisoners are not hardened criminals, and that judges will have to approve any reduction on a case-by-case basis and will not grant an early release to those considered dangerous.

Will the early release of inmates result in a spike in crime? I sure hope not, and it's quite possible that there will not be any distinguishable spike. But I'm not willing to make that claim with much certainty.

I wholeheartedly agree with the "lawyers and groups" noted above that most of the prisoners are not hardened or violent criminals. Many of them, however, will likely be craving a hit or two of crack. Considering that many have been serving multi-year to 22.5 year sentences for getting high or providing for others to get high, I can't honestly fault them for it.

As long as the government feels the need to keep drug prices at high black market levels, corrupt the supply chain, conduct dangerous raids, rely on shady informants and, yes, throw people in jail for years for getting high, then a minority of the released inmates will relapse into a life of crime - be it crime or "crime."

Of course, you can be sure that the DEA will seize any statistic they can find that indicates a related crime spike, and you can be sure that the media will run with it. Expect that. In fact, it's possible that some of these dire stats may even be true. But until any real, substantial progress is made on ending the war on drugs or even better, legalization, it is impossible to guarantee that some of the criminals will not again become dangerous.

The reduction in crack-cocaine vs. powder-cocaine sentencing disparity is a step in the right direction, but it is for sure a baby step. Let's hope that there will still be some positive lessons to learn from this, regardless.

UPDATE: Cully Stimson of the Heritage Foundation opposes making the new sentences retroactive. I don't buy the first half of the argument that the 100-1 sentencing disparity was justified to curb inner-city violence (my paraphrase of Stimson). But the second half of the argument makes some valid points, if you have a world view that takes the Drug War as a given and you refuse to consider legalization.

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