Shorter Sentences for Crack Cocaine

A couple of years ago, we wrote a column about crack cocaine, which ended with a discussion of the federal sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder cocaine:

This disparity has often been called racist since it disproportionately imprisons blacks. In fact, the law probably made sense at the time, when a gram of crack did have far more devastating social costs than a gram of powder cocaine. But it doesn’t anymore. Len Bias [whose death inspired the new crack guidelines] would now be 40 years old, and he would have long outlived his usefulness to the Boston Celtics. It may be time to acknowledge that the law inspired by his death has done the same.

I am sure that we had absolutely nothing to do with it, but it was announced on Thursday that federal sentencing guidelines for crack have in fact been reduced, albeit slightly:

The new U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines for those possessing 5 grams or more of crack cocaine are prison terms of 51 months to 63 months, down from the old range of 63 months to 78 months. The new range for offenders possessing at least 50 grams is 97 months to 121 months in prison, down from 121 months to 151 months. Those ranges apply for first-time crack-cocaine convictions.

It’s possible that a more drastic change is on the way:

The sentencing commission is urging Congress to repeal the mandatory prison term for simple possession and increase the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger five-year and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms as a way to focus on major drug traffickers.

I wonder if any lawmakers read our recent quorum on marijuana. And I wonder if someday we’ll be blogging about the changes in those laws too.

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  1. Alec says:

    Wait…I’m confused. I thought Len Bias’ death was caused by powder cocaine. Why would his death have inspired the crack guidelines?

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  2. Alec says:

    Wait…I’m confused. I thought Len Bias’ death was caused by powder cocaine. Why would his death have inspired the crack guidelines?

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  3. exprop says:

    Stephen
    Have you ever done a full blown discussion of the economics of decriminalizing drug use?

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  4. exprop says:

    Stephen
    Have you ever done a full blown discussion of the economics of decriminalizing drug use?

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  5. Harlan says:

    Good. Reduce prison terms, and use the money saved to increase the number of cops on the street, and the number of arrests for sale of narcotics. The deterrent effect of a 5-year sentence is minimal if you know there’s little chance you’re going to get caught. Basic utility theory.

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  6. Harlan says:

    Good. Reduce prison terms, and use the money saved to increase the number of cops on the street, and the number of arrests for sale of narcotics. The deterrent effect of a 5-year sentence is minimal if you know there’s little chance you’re going to get caught. Basic utility theory.

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  7. Chuck says:

    Alec:

    You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine. There is no question but that this error in fact helped fuel the original disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

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  8. Chuck says:

    Alec:

    You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine. There is no question but that this error in fact helped fuel the original disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

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