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The 100 to 1 Ratio

The 100 to 1 Ratio

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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When I was in college, I majored in Sociology. And, if there's just one thing I learned, it's that our prisons are disporportionately filled with black men. I'd always assumed that was true based on the news I saw and personal experiences I'd had, and it made me uncomfortable. I had a lot of questions, but fundamentally I just wanted to know, "Why?" There are some very sticky and amorphous answers — racial profiling, poverty, a legacy that offers these men fewer opportunities — but none of those answers sat well with me (not to mention the awful, racist explanations that were all too easy to find with Google), or seemed to tell the whole story. Turns out, a lot of the answer is coded into our state and federal laws that penalize similar acts differently. Getting busted for powdered cocaine and getting busted for crack have two very different consequences, for example*. It's called "sentencing disparity," and Professor Douglas Berman says it's so important he wonders whether "criminal justice reform should be the new civil rights movement."

*Today, new sentencing guidelines for crack go into effect. However, it remains uncertain if the new standards will be applied retroactively, and some people don't think the revisions go far enough.

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