Study: Cutting Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity Saving Millions

Study: Cutting Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity Saving Millions

Cocaine Crack Disparity Saves Millions

From the mid-80s to 2010, the federal sentencing guidelines instructed judges to sentence people convicted of drug offenses involving crack cocaine 100 times more harshly than those whose convictions involved powder cocaine. The reason for that sentencing disparity was a misperception about the comparative dangers between the two forms of the drug. Crack was thought to be more dangerous and addictive than powder cocaine.

By 2010, it had become clear that there was no rational basis for the 100 to 1-sentencing disparity. It had also become clear that it had another, very negative impact. Since most powder cocaine offenders are white and most crack offenders are minorities, the rule served to incarcerate minority offenders for much longer periods than whites who had committed equivalent crimes.

Fair Sentencing Act

In response, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act. The Act reduced the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1 — still unjustifiable, many argue, but a big improvement. The following year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission ruled that the revised sentences should be retroactively applied to all those who had received the 100 to 1 sentences. All they had to do, essentially, was apply.

Would 20 years’ worth of crack offenders seeking reduced sentences flood the courts and paralyze the justice system? Would the sudden sentencing reduction give people an incentive to commit more crimes?

The Sentencing Commission Report

The Sentencing Commission has just answered those questions in a preliminary report on the impact of reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity. The New York Times editorial board summed up the results this way: “there are no costs, only benefits.”

According to the Times’ review of the study, more than 7,300 federal inmates have been resentenced. Each one has an average of 29 months taken off their time. Since incarcerating a single person costs about $30,000 a year, those sentence reductions have saved the Federal Bureau of Prisons about $500,000,000 a year — a half a billion dollars out of a $7 billion-budget.

Furthermore, the Commission found no evidence that there was any difference in recidivism rates between those offenders who received reduced sentences and those who did not.

While this is very positive news, many in the criminal justice field — including, notably, several federal judges — still believe the 18 to 1 crack/powder disparity is unfair. They believe that federal sentences for all drug crimes are unduly harsh. Two bipartisan bills are currently before Congress. They would give federal judges more flexibility in drug crime sentencing. They would also reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences for many federal crimes.

Source: The New York Times, “Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off,” Editorial Board, Aug. 1, 2013