SCOTUS Moves to Eliminate Mandatory Minimums for Crack Cocaine
> 12/10/2007 11:27:58 AM

In a decision delivered this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that federal guidelines for sentencing in cases involving crack cocaine are advisory and need not be adhered to as mandatory. The 7-2 decision in Kimbrough v. United States overturned a lower court's ruling on those guidelines, which accounted for the infamous 100-to-1 ratio for crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine.

For the last 21 years, courts around the United States have been handing down much stiffer sentences for criminals arrested in connection with crack cocaine. Under these old sentencing guidelines a person arrested in possession of 50 grams of crack was subject to a 10-year sentence, while a person would need to be caught with 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine to receive the same sentence. These rules were originally put into place during what is often called the "crack epidemic," with the idea being that these mandatory sentences would help eliminate the rise in criminality that accompanied the proliferation of crack during the mid-to-late-80's.

Unfortunately, these laws have remained on the books, even as the levels of crime have dropped off. Today, use of powdered cocaine far outpaces use of crack cocaine, the latter being a derivative of the former that allows for easier free-basing or smoking. Crack is cheaper, and because it is smoked, produces a high much more quickly. While the crime levels that initially led to the 100-to-1 ratio have dropped off, cocaine use has not.

While the topic of sentencing and punishment for drug offenses has been somewhat contentious in political circles, it is our belief that if men and women are ever to truly break free of their addictions, treatment must be an integral part. Mandatory sentences forced judges and juries to impose far stricter punishments than were perhaps called for in crack cocaine cases, and they have in part led to a situation where a quarter of all inmates are in prison on drug offenses, and 1 in 10 is in prison for possession. As a 2001 White House fact sheet points out, the numbers of inmates in prison for drug offenses has skyrocketed since the years before the mandatory minimums went into place.

When those with drug or alcohol problems enter the criminal justice system and do not receive treatment, the chances that they will return to prison after being released are very high. Join Together, an advocacy group based at Boston University's School of Public Health, points to the success of drug courts in helping to get offenders out of patterns of unhealthy behavior and into treatment programs. The idea is not to absolve a drug user of wrong doing, but to suspend the conviction while treatment is provided. If an individual can get clean, and stay out of trouble, then that conviction may go away, or be reduced. But the ultimate goal is to treat a problem case, instead of remanding an individual to the care of the state with no hope of improvement.

Today's SCOTUS decision is not a signal that all is right with the criminal justice system, but it is a strong indication that the culture of punishment for drug users is changing. Mandatory minimums for crack cocaine have been a shameful reminder of a time when punishing addicts was more important than healing addicts. The decision on Kimbrough represents a step in the right direction from which future improvements can proceed.

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