President Obama Addresses ‘Unfair’ Drug Laws In An Important Way

Now that he is well established in his second term, President Obama finally seems ready to use his executive powers to correct some of these injustices. Earlier this week, eight federal inmates had their sentences commuted by President Obama and most will be released within the next 120 days.

It seems as though many if not all of the eight inmates were victims of a sentencing disparity that has since been reduced. Prior to passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, crack and powder cocaine were treated very differently by the criminal justice system, even though crack is a form of cocaine.

The two drugs had a sentencing disparity of 100:1; meaning that someone charged with possession of just five grams of crack might face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. For someone charged with a cocaine offense, however, they would need to be in possession of 500 grams of cocaine to receive the same sentence.

The disparity between the two drugs has been called racist. This is because cocaine is one of the most expensive street drugs and is therefore more likely to be used by white and/or affluent Americans. Crack, on the other hand, is much cheaper and more likely to be used in poor and/or predominantly African-American communities.

The Fair Sentencing Act did not eliminate the disparity, but it did greatly reduce it. What was once a 100:1 ratio is now closer to about 18:1. The inmates who recently had their sentences commuted are the first to be granted retroactive relief, meaning that their sentences were reduced even though they were sentenced prior to passage of the FSA.

Commenting on his decision to commute their sentences, President Obama said: “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.”

We can only hope that President Obama’s recent actions are a sign that the United States is moving toward more sensible and equitable drug laws and policies.

Source: The New York Times, “Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 in Crack Cocaine Cases,” Charlie Savage, Dec. 19, 2013