A gram of LSD changing hands while in the presence of a law enforcement agent can cost a participant in that transaction five years in federal prison. Being arrested while carrying the weight of two sugar packets of crack cocaine can garner the same sentence, even for a first-time offense. For a methamphetamine conviction, it’s five years without parole for five grams.
Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders has helped swell America’s prison population to the largest on the planet. But recently some states have considered relaxing some of the more extreme discrepancies in their mandatory sentencing requirements. Missouri is a prime example.
For decades, Missouri State Representative Gary Fuhr was a police officer patrolling the streets of St. Louis, Missouri. Later, he became an FBI agent. He liked to say his career was spent “mak[ing] sure all our correctional facilities operated at maximum capacity.”
A few years ago, Fuhr participated in a study breaking down who precisely was among that maximum capacity in Missouri state prisons, and what charges had crammed them in there. The discrepancies and inequities he saw were eye-opening. After Fuhr was elected to the state House in 2010, the Republican lawmaker sponsored legislation to keep some nonviolent offenders out of prison by creating community supervision alternatives. He also championed a bill to change the state’s sentencing laws for crack cocaine, which at the time were the harshest in the nation.
“Lawmakers are recognizing it was unfair because crack and powder cocaine are pharmacologically the same drug.”
Before Fuhr’s law passed, a person who sold 450 grams of powder cocaine on the streets of St. Louis faced the same penalty—a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years—as someone who sold six grams of crack cocaine.
House Bill 1256 minimized the “sentencing quantity ratio” of crack over powder cocaine from 75-to-1 to 18-to-1, which mirrored the changes in the 2010 federal Fair Sentencing Act. Now, someone has to sell 24 grams of crack in Missouri to get the same sentence as nearly half a kilo of powder cocaine.
Despite 2010’s changes in federal sentencing guidelines, the mandatory provisions still in place require that anyone convicted of possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine—the weight of two sugar packets—receive a five-year prison term. And that’s for a first-time offense.
Traditionally, these mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately impact minority communities. A 2005 study found that African Americans represented 12 percent of the total population of U.S. drug users, but 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense.
“Racial disparities exist throughout the system,” Nicole Porter, director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, tells TakePart.
That said, the number of whites in prison has actually been going up. From 1999 to 2005, the number of whites incarcerated for a drug offense rose 42.6 percent, representing an additional 21,000 persons in prison, according to the Sentencing Project. Anecdotally researchers say that bump is due to sentences handed down for meth and prescription drug abuse.
Still, there are signs that America’s love affair with mandatory long sentences for drug offenses is beginning to wane. Seven states last year, including Missouri, softened their mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses, including crack cocaine and other drug possessions, the Sentencing Project notes in a new report.
Those changes stemmed from public education campaigns, says Porter. “Lawmakers are recognizing it was unfair because crack and powder cocaine are pharmacologically the same drug.”
Fuhr’s push to reduce the cocaine “sentencing quantity ratio” came after national groups including the Sentencing Project found that Missouri was among more than a dozen states with a major sentencing disparity for the drugs. As his bill moved through the state legislature last year, he said, “This was a good move, and I think this is the right bill for it.”
Despite some progress, 12 states still have major crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities. Missouri remains in that category despite its law change.
“The reality is we have a long way to go,” the Sentencing Project’s Porter says. Still, she adds, “the public is shifting.”
Are drug sentencing disparities aimed at minorities, or do those laws just impact non-whites inadvertently? Leave your theories in COMMENTS.
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.