The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

New Report Highlights Racial Disparities in Drug Sentencing

Feature Story by Melissa Krainson - 10/10/2007

Almost a half a million people are locked up for a drug offense, as a result of drug arrests tripling over the last 25 years.

The Sentencing Project examined the effects of this 25-year "war on drugs," in a new report that highlights racial disparities in drug arrests as well as problems raised by the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

According to the report, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the heightened crackdown on drugs. 

African Americans constitute 14 percent of drug users, yet make up 37 percent of arrests and 56 percent of people in state prison. In addition, the report found that African Americans serve nearly as much time in prison for drug offenses as Whites do for violent offenses. 

Much of the rise in incarceration rates can be traced to mandatory sentencing laws enacted in the mid-1980s, beginning with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

Since 1988, sentencing for drug offenses has increased 14 percent.

Civil rights groups and criminal justice advocates have pointed to discriminatory mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly the 1:100 crack cocaine law, as a primary reason for rising incarceration of African Americans. Currently, African Americans make up 82 percent of the defendants sentenced, despite the fact that Whites and Latinos make up two-thirds of the crack cocaine users.

Interest in the impact of mandatory sentencing has increased over the past few years.  "There is nearly universal agreement that current sentences for crack cocaine offenses are unfair and ineffective," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

This term, the Supreme Court will consider judicial discretion in crack sentencing.

In the case, Kimbrough v. United States, a judge decided that the federal sentencing guidelines for selling crack were too harsh to send Derrick Kimbrough of Norfolk, Va., to jail for nearly 22 years.  He reduced the sentence to 15 years.

"The Supreme Court's consideration of the magnitude of discretion afforded to federal sentencing judges is a step towards creating a more just sentencing system," said Mauer. "The Court's action will certainly influence the policy debate."

In addition, Congress is looking at addressing the disparities in sentencing.

Senator Joe Biden, D. Del., is one of a number of legislators set to introduce bills that create a uniform sentencing structure for both forms of cocaine to make the penalties for possessing crack cocaine to equal that of powder cocaine

Another bill would reduce the sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 20:1 instead of eliminating it.

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