Thursday morning, Barack Obama further cemented his campaign to alleviate the sentences of those punished for minor, nonviolent drug offenses by commuting the sentences of 8 individuals who had been serving time for crack-cocaine cases.
The eight people President Obama commuted were sentenced before he signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law which was passed in 2010 to reduce the disparity between the amount of crack-cocaine and the amount of powder-cocaine needed to invoke a mandatory minimum sentence. The Fair Sentencing Act decreased the disparity from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ration (meaning that one would have to possess 18 grams of powder-cocaine to receive the same sentence as someone who possessed 1 gram of crack-cocaine).
The original law which created the initial ratio was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. At the time of its creation and passing, Congress gave five reasons as to why the ratio was structured the way it was: 1) Crack cocaine was more addictive; 2) Crack cocaine was more often associated with violent crime; 3) Crack cocaine was more dangerous when used by pregnant mothers; 4) Youth were more likely to use crack cocaine than powder; and 5) Crack cocaine was cheaper, meaning it would be consumed in higher quantities.
Since the passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, much light has been shown on the issue of crack cocaine versus powder-cocaine. First, the “scientific” standards used to justify the original ratio have since been debunked and ruled unjustifiable. Secondly, it was noticed that the discrepancy in sentencing between crack and powder cocaines unjustly impacted blacks more than any other ethnicity, resulting in racial inequalities under the law, an issue protected against by the 14th amendment.
It was because of these unjust sentencing practices that Barack Obama decided to commute the sentences of 8 inmates in prison for crack cocaine charges. In speaking of his decision to commute the charges, Obama stated, “If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
The decision comes at a time where there is a push to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. As it currently stands, the United States is responsible for 5% of the world’s population, but holds 25% of the world’s inmates. This number hits home when one realizes that it costs taxpayers approximately $26,000 per year to house one inmate, with the total cost of supporting inmates in the US during 2013 equaling $7.9 billion.
The burden of the prison system on taxpayers was also part of the reasoning President Obama gave for his commutation earlier today:
“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”
Currently, certain members of Congress are seeking to pass a law which would allow for the Fair Sentencing Act to be retroactively applied to cases which would have received reduced sentencing under current laws. If passed, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) estimated that 8,800 inmates would become eligible to receive reduced sentences.
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