Daniel McGowan
Daniel McGowan
Daniel McGowan
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Victory! Changes made to crack sentencing guidelines

Recently, the US Sentencing Commission released changes to sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders (November 10, 2007) and on December 11th, applied them retroactively – a major reform in the way crack offenders have been sentenced since 1986. The gist of this change is that crack offenders sentenced under 201.1 will now receive a 2-point reduction (or, more accurately will be eligible for) to their base offense level under the federal sentencing guidelines. Depending on one’s sentence, this could be a significant reduction – leading to years off many peoples’ sentences. This is a major reform and could result in 19,500 people going home earlier in the next 30 years (currently, the federal prison population is about 200,000). In March 2008, when the change becomes official, over 3,800 people will be eligible for release in 2008 alone. A similar number will be eligible for release in 2009.

This change is only one that needs to happen but it’s a great step toward a more sensible drug policy in the U.S. The new change doesn’t affect the 5 or 10 year mandatory minimum sentences related to crack and it doesn’t affect every crack offender. Each individual will need to petition their federal judge for a sentence reduction and make sure it applies to their specific case. The guideline change unfortunately does not change the 100:1 ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine (i.e. in sentencing, 100G of powder is treated the same as 1G of crack). The problem with this ratio is that it treats identical botanical and chemical substances disproportionately when it comes to sentencing. It has been criticized as racist – when you consider 85% of crack offenders are black and that ratio punishes them so much more than powder cocaine offenders. While it’s great to see more reasonable minds slowly prevailing on crack, I cannot help but see the same dynamic happening nationwide with methamphetamine – what I call “the meth/crack heads are going to eat your children” propaganda – just think of the early 90’s film, New Jack City!

I don’t want to downplay the harm done by drug abuse – both from the culture associated with their use and the legal ramifications of their use, plus the destructive role addiction plays in many peoples’ lives. Growing up in a neighborhood with its fair share of crack, I can say I’m no fan. I neither felt safe nor appreciated the dealers with their pitbull guarded yards, antisocial attitudes and ‘stick up kid’ activity. My experience does not lead me to advocate for more punitive sentences for crack offenders. Locking up people and sending them to prison is a much worse alternative than intensive drug treatment for users and addressing the economic realities that underlie so much of the choices people make. The federal prison system has a drug treatment program but I’m not sure if recidivism/drug use rates are studied or even collected (never mind peer review or other less biased sources of evaluation).

I read about an act that recently passed the House of Representatives called The Second Chance Act of 2007 (Senate bill 1060, House bill 1593). The bill has many reform-based provisions dealing with increased half-way house time, more money for re-entry, family drug treatment and provisions that allow elderly prisoners to be released earlier. Please take some time to write or call your senator urging them to vote for this. While I don’t believe in giving up your power to “representatives,” I also live in this world and know there are things we can do now as opposed to waiting for long-term systematic changes which can make changes in peoples’ lives. You can find more information about this bill here and contacts for your senators here.

It’s rare that good news comes out about the state of prisons. The new crack changes are a good first step as are the recent Supreme Court decisions that address the extent of judges’ discretion in sentencing. What we need now is the removal of mandatory minimum sentences and the reinstitution of federal parole.


1) Drug Policy Alliance

2) US Sentencing Commission

3) Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)

4) New York Times article on crack law change

5) The Sentencing Project

6) Prison Legal News

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