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A misguided drug policy [Editorial]

Laws and LegislationDrug TraffickingMedicineU.S. Congress

Last week President Barack Obama issued a challenge to Congress to take care of some urgent unfinished business. The president used his executive powers to commute the sentences of eight people sentenced to long prison terms imposed under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines that required judges to treat defendants convicted of drug offenses involving crack cocaine far more harshly than those convicted of selling or possessing similar amounts of the drug in powdered form.

Mr. Obama said the disparity in sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine offenders had unnecessarily swollen the nation's prison population with thousands of nonviolent offenders who pose little threat to public safety. Yet keeping them behind bars costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year that could be put to more productive uses. Moreover, the harsh sentences for crack offenses unfairly punish African-American defendants, since crack use is more prevalent in poor black communities, while powder cocaine is more often used by affluent whites. One result of that disparity has been that black offenders are far more likely than whites to be sentenced to long prison terms.

Congress moved to rectify that injustice in 2010 when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced what had been a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses involving similar amounts of the drug. But welcome though that change was, it did not affect the thousands of people who were sent to prison before the act was passed. Many people currently serving long prison terms would have already completed their sentences and paid their debt to society if today's sentencing guidelines had been in effect. In addition to commuting the sentences of these eight offenders, Mr. Obama has called on lawmakers to amend the 2010 legislation to make it retroactive for all those in a similar situations who remain incarcerated.

The disproportionately harsh punishments for crystal cocaine before 2010 were a reaction to the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, when families and poor urban communities across the country were ripped apart by the gang violence that accompanied the drug's appearance. Congress felt it had to do something, but in retrospect it's clear that the debate was driven largely by emotion rather than evidence of effectiveness. Since then, the policy has fueled an 800 percent increase in the number of inmates in America's prisons; the U.S now incarcerates a larger percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world. Yet there is little evidence that such draconian sentences actually made us any safer.

In theory, the president could commute the sentences of nearly all those who still languish behind bars for crack cocaine offenses committed decades ago. There are currently more than 8,000 such inmates in U.S. prisons, according to civil liberties advocates and prisoner rights groups. But that would let Congress off the hook for legislating what is really needed — an orderly process by which such cases can be adjudicated on an individual basis that takes into account the specific circumstances of each crime.

Mr. Obama has given that process new impetus by commuting the sentences of the eight offenders he freed last week, all of whom have served at least 15 years and several of whom were sentenced to life terms in prison. They include an Alabama man who was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a 1993 drug deal when he was 23, and a Florida woman who was 27 when she received a life sentence for hiding her boyfriend's stash of crack inside a box at her house. Neither of those inmates were charged with a violent crime or with directly participating in an illegal drug sale, and judges who sentenced them both protested the punishments as unfair even though the law gave them no choice except to impose them.

The nation has paid a huge price for this misguided policy, however well-intentioned it may have appeared when first enacted. The president is supporting a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would begin to redress this injustice by allowing inmates to formally apply for a review of their cases to determine whether a reduced sentence would be appropriate. That won't make up for all the years thousands of people lost while serving sentences that are now acknowledged to have been grossly unfair, but it's the least Congress can do to begin to restore the values of fair play and equality under the law that our criminal justice system should honor.

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