A Crack in the War on Drugs
November 12, 2007 11:31 PM   Subscribe

The US Sentencing Commission has recommended that Federal sentencing guidelines be reduced for crimes involving crack cocaine -- and is now deliberating making the new guidelines retroactive for prisoners already incarcerated. [WaPo] If taken into effect, about 3,800 inmates could be released by this time next year.

The disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine has been well documented. There are now several bills in Congress that would equalize the sentences given for distribution and possession of both substances. Is this an isolated event, or could this be the harbinger of an overall thaw in the War on Drugs? [WaPo - article largely on poppy cultivation, but also dovetails with crack and cocaine]
posted by Avenger (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this an isolated event, or could this be the harbinger of an overall thaw in the War on Drugs?

More likely, harbinger of a new phase in the oscillating zeitgeist that is American politics.
posted by daksya at 11:41 PM on November 12, 2007

I think it means the Republicans are expecting a Democrat to be the next President.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:50 PM on November 12, 2007

This will wendell.
posted by Poolio at 11:51 PM on November 12, 2007

It'd be crazy not to try crack with these low, low sentencing guidlines.
posted by stavrogin at 12:05 AM on November 13, 2007 [16 favorites]

Reduce sentencing in an effort to relax on drugs a bit, but reduce sentencing on a volatile enough drug that offenders are likely to cause problems. Point this out as a necessity that all drugs are bad and must be taken more seriously. Use this as an argument against hallucinogens and marijuana, regardless of the tenuous connections. Continue addiction to prescription painkillers, leaving punishments light because it's not a bad drug, it can't be if a doctor prescribed it.

Oh, and huge kickbacks from legal drug manufacturers (Alcohol and tobacco corporations), where the profit comes in. Maybe a few ???s in there for good measure.
posted by Saydur at 3:42 AM on November 13, 2007

People hooked on crack need some kind of help. They're not gonna get it in jail, long sentence or short. People selling crack to people hooked on it still need to be incarcerated, although this gets sticky where people are selling it to support their addiction. It's a god-awfully addicting drug, and when you're in its grips, they law is not something that even comes into play as your impaired mind seeks the next fix. It wouldn't help much to reduce usage if they were hanging crack addicts from telephone poles. (though it would reduce recidivism, I guess*)

If a reduction in incarceration rates results in a net savings to the justice system, please, for the love of humanity, let's see that money go towards an increase in in-patient treatment centers.

/Bleeding heart librul, speaking from experience.

posted by Devils Rancher at 4:11 AM on November 13, 2007

Oscillating Zeitgeist will be the name of my next band.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:16 AM on November 13, 2007

In this country our sentences for non-violent drug offenders are too long and our sentences for violent offenders are too short.
posted by caddis at 4:30 AM on November 13, 2007

"3,800 inmates could be released" - as in put on boats and ferried to Cuba?

Somebody finally figured out how to pay Castro back.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:34 AM on November 13, 2007

If taken into effect, about 3,800 inmates could be released by this time next year.

And without any treatment or funding for proper rehabilitation programs, they'll mostly go right back to selling and/or doing crack.

I sincerely doubt this will take effect, anyway. The prison system is far too profitable and "tough on poor black people crime" is far too politically beneficial for anyone in a position to enact the recommendations to actually do it. I mean, seriously, next year is an election; do you think anyone wants "let four thousand crack addicts back onto the streets" used in an ad against them?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:50 AM on November 13, 2007

If taken into effect, about 3,800 inmates could be released by this time next year.

And if even one of these Willie Hortons commits another crime there will be hell to pay at the ballot box.
posted by three blind mice at 5:30 AM on November 13, 2007

If you get caught using crack, they should just give you a couple of pounds of it and send you on your way. Problem solved.
posted by Mr_Zero at 6:13 AM on November 13, 2007

In this country our sentences for non-violent drug offenders are too long and our sentences for violent offenders are too short.


Here's the average time served for violent crimes: (remember, average indicates that many people served *less* than the stated number.)

Homicide, 71 months.
Rape, 65 months.
Kidnapping, 52 months.
Robbery, 44 months.
Sexual Assault, 35 months.
Assault, 29 months.
Other Violent Crimes, 28 months.

And Mandatory Minimums for non-violent drug crimes: (Note that good behaviour, etc can only reduce these by a maximum of 15%, and that these figures double if you have a previous offense.)

60 months:
1 gram of LSD (including carrier)
5 grams of crack
500 grams of cocaine
100 marijuana plants

120 months:

10 grams of LSD (including carrier)
50 grams of crack:
5000 grams of cocaine
1000 marijuana plants

These stats indicate why it is that the US has 2.2 million people in jail and another 5 million people on probation or parole.

It's time to admit that the "War On Drugs" was a terrible idea.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 6:36 AM on November 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

There are two sides to this believe it or not. Our jails are over-crowded anyways and if they are releasing people that used it once or twice then this will save room. On the other side, some of them will use/sell it again and end up back in jail. Who is to blame to begin with? The people who can't break the addiction! We can arrest every dealer on the streets but as long as there is a market for someone there will be someone willing to sell the product. These addicts will get their fix from someone. They could care less who. You arrest the dealer on 4th st. and a new one will pop up on 9th. The only way to eliminate this problem is to eliminate the addiction. Once the addiction is gone then there will be no market for crack, ergo no money to be made in the selling of it. Thus ending the drug problem. So all we really need is someway to eliminate the addiction and we are in the clear.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:40 AM on November 13, 2007

3 cheers for common fucking sense. Now how about we do away with the rest of the mandatory miniumum drug laws, and repeal the Rockefeller drug laws to boot?
posted by Afroblanco at 6:53 AM on November 13, 2007

They tried to change the sentencing this in the early 90s also. When realized they weren't arrested ANY serious crack users, and were just arresting either people in the wrong situation, or the end users, not the suppliers. Their original suggestion was to raise the minimum amount for crack to be the same as cocaine, since crack is made from cocaine, and they wanted to stop the dealers and distributors.

And congress completely gutted the Sentencing committee, fired the heads of the group, and instead of making it an independent organization that would be in charge of the sentences, it can only make suggestions and get approval from congress. Because congress knows best.

Not only that, but statistically, the average crack user is White, in his mid 30s-40s, while the average arrestee under the minimum sentence was african american, aged 15-25.

Not to mention that they combined the total weight of the drug over time to go towards the minimum sentence, so Officer Wiggum could have a sting operation where he asks a kid on the street to buy him some crack (as stated above, a 30 something white guy looking to buy crack isn't an uncommon experience) and the kid knows someone, wants a quick $20-30 bucks, and obliges. Guy asks again, kid buys again, and at the end of the day, when the cop finally gets 5 grams, he busts the kid. Usually happens around the end of the month, or towards quarterly reviews, when cops and their departments have to justify their budgets.

Also, as of 2002, the Sentencing Committee could not get a straight answer from the DEA on how much crack you can make from X amount of cocaine. The whole idea was created on a lark, in reaction to the death of a young basketball player in the mid 80s, at the time believed to be from crack (ironically, it appears to have been cocaine), and done entirely on heresay and rumor, not actual fact or research. And as I stated above, when they did the research, they weren't allowed to push it through, because it contradicted popular notions of the drug.

On top of this, while the retroactive sentencing would be the right thing to do, it will just cause more problems, as it has been shown that prison makes a great place to recruit criminals, especially from the poor 15-25 year old demographic (and lots of 15-16 year olds were tried and sentenced as adults), and if even .05% of the release population commits another felony, the press will be all over it.

Sorry I don't have any research links in this, it is early and I am late for work. I gained this information from talking with (at the time) a member of the sentencing committee research group, who was a graduate of my college, and was visiting to co lecture one of my sociology classes. This is something he was been pushing for then, and hopefully he is still there to see the product of his hard work. Ill see if I can dig up more and post a bit later today.
posted by mrzarquon at 6:57 AM on November 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

People hooked on crack need some kind of help. They're not gonna get it in jail, long sentence or short.

I've got a friend.


He feels that jail is helpful to him with his crack problem. Not only is he abstinent when he's in there, he's not jumping over the counter in stores and holding a knife to the throat of teenage/old shop assistants -- an act which troubles his conscience greatly afterwards, but that he feels completely unable to control when he's smoking.

Oh, I've got another friend.


Tanya credits prison with having finally brought her to sustainable sobriety when neither estrangement from family and friends, the loss of her children into the care system and years and years of outpatient treatment and residential rehab couldn't manage it.

Oh. Third and last friend.


He's serving three life sentences, because his dealer ripped him off. And so he doused his dealer, his dealer's wife, and his dealer's wife's sister in petrol. Then he lit the match.

Nicest man you could hope to meet, but that crack did make him paranoid that people were taking advantage of him. Robbing him. And laughing about him behind his back. I'm not sure whether Billy will recover from his crack problem in Broadmoor, but he's unlikely to be able to smoke the kind of mind-warping quantities he used to enjoy.

I'm not advocating prison sentences for crack use -- and none of these were sent to prison for possession of crack. Rather, it was because of behaviours that they'd engage in as a consequence of their crack use. And I'm well aware that it has no impact at all on most people's drug use -- although a recent law suit means that British prisoners are now entitled to precisely the same types of drug treatment while in prison that they'd get when they were free -- including Methadone and Subutex/Suboxone maintenance.

But I also know that we've got a 12 step rehab in the city where I live, Park House, and the bulk of their customers are people who, having had a taste of abstinence while in prison, are now seeking help in sustaining that abstinence after release in the hope of turning their lives around permanently.

And I only remark on any of this at all, because it's all counter-intuitive to me as well. I had to be exposed to it repeatedly before I'd stop writing it off as the occasional anomoly.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:25 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I see the need, but wouldn't it make a hell of a lot more sense to reduce marijuana sentences first and foremost?
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:26 AM on November 13, 2007


The crack possession sentence is ridiculous by comparison (and this is federal law, not local laws) to the minimum for marijuana, a 100 plants. While states may have other laws, and do things such as submit the total weight of the piece containing marijuana (so that resin in your cool glass bong just became a 1/3 kilo brick of pot to the court system), that is not the scope of the this groups focus.

Also, before this was an autonomous group that was supposed to be monitoring and changing these numbers without needing immediate congressional approval. You want people who are actually following the statistics and the impact of their actions, not just politicians who will kick it around, afraid to appear soft on crack dealers.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:50 AM on November 13, 2007

PeterMcDermott, Tanya seems to be the only sure success story among the three. Billy is staying in forever (barring some parole provision). Michael is still in prison, by your account, and we don't know how it'll play out after he comes out.

May I ask how long was Tanya in prison, and how long has she been out?
posted by daksya at 7:55 AM on November 13, 2007

Woulda been nice to have recommended some minimum sentencing for Reagan for bringing the damn stuff into the country in the first place.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:59 AM on November 13, 2007

crack turns you into Satan's bitch.
posted by quonsar at 8:53 AM on November 13, 2007

May I ask how long was Tanya in prison, and how long has she been out?

he didn't say she was out, he said prison had brought her sustainable sobriety. think about it.
posted by quonsar at 8:55 AM on November 13, 2007

There ya go, crackhead - sorry about the total lack of meaningful rehabilitation or treatment. By the way, it looks like the economy is just about to go tits up. Good luck out there!
posted by nanojath at 10:37 AM on November 13, 2007

Peter, we should note, is talking about prison in the UK, which is a very different place from prison in the US. Of course, the resourceful in both places can get drugs in prison-- but in the US, you are far more likely to be raped, assaulted and otherwise traumatized than you would be in a British prison and so the aftermath of an American prison sentence is likely to be a lot different from what he talks about in the UK.

If you traumatize people, you make recovery *less* likely and more difficult.

A cheaper way to get the same result, of course, is to give drug offenders the choice of abstinence from their problem drug (testing twice a week, random days) or incarceration. Every positive test results in a few days in jail-- if you can stay clean without treatment, great, problem solved, and money to system saved by cutting both unnecessary treatment costs and unnecessary prison.

If you cannot, treatment of your choice is available if you want to avoid the frequent, pain in the butt, certain punishment [frequent, annoying and certain punishment actually can help change behavior-- unlike infrequent, uncertain, and lengthy sentences which don't].

This prevents the treatment from becoming an arm of the system which can be total crap because it has a constant stream of forced customers who are blamed for their failures, not the treatment providers. With treatment actually having to *attract* customers, outcomes will improve because the more kind and empathetic treatment is, the more effective according to the research.

Oh and with regard to releasing the people who have been in jail for decades on crack charges-- most of these are low level dealers who have long ago been replaced on the street by younger folks. Age drastically reduces recidivism risks-- and the only people they'd actually let go are people who did not have a record of violence in the first place, anyway.

Regarding crack addiction-- the thing most people don't realize is that while crack addiction is horrific, it is usually actually shorter-term than heroin or alcohol addiction. If you are using crack daily, that lifestyle can really only be sustained for most people for 3-4 years. Whereas you can be an alcoholic or junkie sustainably for decades-- because those drugs make you calm, not hyper.

Of course, there are the folks who use multiple drugs with crack in the mix and they can keep it up longer... but if you take crack out of the mix, you might have a nicer more manageable addict, but you still have a polydrug addict.
posted by Maias at 11:19 AM on November 13, 2007

Collision and now the car is totaled but wait..yea look we can still fix the ashtray. Drug laws are used as social and racial controls. Treating addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease insures constant grist for the mill, a continuance of the of the "War on Drugs Industrial Complex triad" comprised of law enforcement, legal beagles, and prisons. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association today has 31,000 members and one of the wealthiest political action committees in the state. Prisoners mean jobs and promotions. The war on drugs is a $100,000,000,000.00 a year effort, one which lines many a pocket. Massachusetts recently voted on an measure were the money sized from drug activity would be allocated to research and treatment of addiction. Heavy lobbying by District Prosecutors & police against the measure insured the defeat of the referendum. The DA's rally cry was that sized money was used to fight against crime and the increasing influx of cash brought the ability to bring even greater safety for all and at no cost to the taxpayer. Funding treatment of addicts would reward and coddle people to whom suffering was a consciously chosen moral failing, at least that was the party line. Large portions of Amerika's governmental & corporate families depend on a drug culture for their very existance. From the start alcohol & drug probition have elements of a class war. McDonalds pays $7.00/hr while selling drugs on the corner can be $700.00/hr. A good job buys you health insurance and access to legal drugs, poverty offers MD 20/20 on a good day.The well healed go to the Malibu Beach rehab while the poor go to jail at Soledad.
posted by Rancid Badger at 11:29 AM on November 13, 2007

Maias writes "A cheaper way to get the same result, of course, is to give drug offenders the choice of abstinence from their problem drug (testing twice a week, random days) or incarceration. Every positive test results in a few days in jail-- if you can stay clean without treatment, great, problem solved, and money to system saved by cutting both unnecessary treatment costs and unnecessary prison."

That still treats addiction as a criminal problem. What if someone's "problem drug" is alcohol?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:36 AM on November 13, 2007

Okay, this is a good thing and all, but WTF democrats-- you get your shit together enough to do something which will be incredibly unpopular like releasing 2500 crackheads from prison but you can't end a fucking war that nobody wants?
posted by empath at 4:14 PM on November 13, 2007

wow - republicons finally are figuring out the $35,000+ a year spent on incarcerating these men and women perhaps isn't the best use of our borrowed funds from china ... heh.
posted by specialk420 at 10:18 PM on November 13, 2007

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