EQUITY IN SENTENCING: IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Certainly, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 is a step in the right direction!  The crackdown on crack cocaine that eventuated in the maltreatment and disparate sentencing of persons of color compared with users of powder cocaine was prima facie racist from its inception.  That is why the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project is correct in exhorting the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama to make this new law have retroactive effect.  There are countless numbers of African Americans who are in prison for nonviolent offenses because of the presence of crack cocaine in their sentencing.  This law is couched in terms of the future, but it should have reparative scope.

The marvelous thing about this new law, if signed by the President, is that it eliminates, for simple possession, mandatory minimums, which have forced the hands of judges who might have given lesser sentences to offenders if they had had the discretion to do so!  Judges and juries can look at offenders as individuals and determine what alternatives to incarceration are available and suitable to each case.  No longer is being caught possessing equivalent to a prison sentence!  Of course, there are a number of drug abusers and traffickers who need to sit behind prison bars for a while, and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  Not the old law, but the new law about to be signed by Obama.

This pending change is a true picture of democracy in action!  Individuals, organizations, and institutions have repeatedly argued for the unconstitutionality and racist nature of the double standard with respect to powder and crack cocaine.  The debating, petitioning, protesting, and so forth have finally paid off.

However, there are still some problems.  The law significantly reduces the disparity between the two forms of cocaine, but it does not eradicate it completely.  Furthermore, the law does not get rid of mandatory minimums altogether; rather, it raises the amount of possession that compels judges to levy a five- or ten-year minimum.  This quantity disparity notwithstanding, the new law has the potential of reducing the prison population by 3,800, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

With caution, I submit a new day might be coming for the criminal justice system.  The attempt to reduce the racial and ethnic minority disparities in sentencing will definitely have a ramifying effect upon law enforcement and indictments as well as on sentencing.  The beloved community is not around the corner, so to speak, but finally some justice, fairness, and equity have found their way into the body politic.  It’s about time!

About mdbwell

Pres., Project for the Beloved Community B.A.--Wesleyan University M.Div.--Yale University Ph.D.--Boston University Summer Study--Harvard University Advocate for the poor
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