crack: now less whack

The United States Sentencing Commission finally reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This is a good thing, and here’s why:

These are the facts they were faced with:

  • The overwhelming majority of those incarcerated under these guidelines are non-violent low-level offenders. Thats street level dealers and minor users.
  • Over 85% of those incarcerated for these offenses are African American.

We do not prosecute or target low-level cocaine offenders with anything even resembling the mania that we have unleashed upon crack offenders. But when it comes down to it, what are the main differences between these two groups? Race and violence.

In all, 20,000 low level offenders will now be eligible for reduced sentences. That is an overall good thing, because the value of incarcerating these individuals is, in most cases, almost nothing. I’ll explain how we know this after the cut:

  • Because low level drug dealers are not violent. More importantly, they are extremely easy to replace. Younger men with low prospects in life, especially former dealers or others with a criminal record, often turn to street-level dealing because they have few viable options (a criminal history generally precludes most other options, anyways). So jailing ten thousand drug dealers will in no way reduce the number of people selling drugs on the street, and in reality, we have as many drug dealers today as we did when we started this adventure. Potential drug dealers ahve nowhere to turn, so until we provide attractive alternatives, they’ll keep dealing drugs.
  • Moreover, we know for a fact that incarceration is a poor means of drug rehabilitation. Also, drug users are not violent either, so jailing them and their dealers won’t reduce the violence that I’ll admit has made the crack epidemic so much more painful. We have very little chance of curing users of their addictions unless we make serious efforts to rehabilitate them. Again, its clear that these sentences have no effect on the overall state of drug usage.

What should we do with these resources instead?

  1. We should focus on prevention (using economic forces to provide young people with options significantly better than drug dealing)
  2. We should focus on rehabilitation (and if we are being honest, rehabilitation is best done outside of a jail cell)
  3. Lastly, we should focus on reducing the violence associated with drugs. This means focusing on the high-level drug offenders, those who package the drugs to the street-dealers and those who drive the violence associated with the struggle for turf.

Its hard to tell how this decision will affect Congress and the future of sentencing guidelines altogether. It is very interesting to note that the guidelines were lifted retroactively in this case, which seems relatively rare. Some in the drug policy reform world worry that this is just a bone that drug warriors happen to be tossing to us, and that they will shut the door on the rest of the common sense reforms still waiting to happen in the future.


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