Cracks in the System

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Crack cocaine offenders are typically sentenced to 50 percent more jail time than powder cocaine offenders. This sentencing disparity emerged in the mid Eighties, when lawmakers mandated harsh sentences in response to the country's cocaine epidemic. Fast forward to today: Experts now know that there's little difference between crack and powdered cocaine, but crack offenders are still serving harsher sentences than powdered offenders. Yesterday the United States Sentencing Commission, which puts out sentencing guidelines for federal judges to follow, narrowed that disparity for as many as 19,500 prison inmates. The decision will reduce sentences for hard cocaine users by an average of 27 months, and it applies retroactively. Predictably, the Commission's decision has stirred up a lot of controversy: some argue that it will put criminals back into fragile neighborhoods already marred by crime, others argue that it will eat up time and money from the federal courts, and still others argue that the Commission should go even further in reducing the sentencing disparity.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I was listening to The Diane Rheem show today and they were talking about the mandatory minimum sentencing (mms) and crack use / sales etc / and race.
I sent them the email below, the two points / which you might want to consider:

I listened to today's show (Dec. 12, '07) on mandatory minimum sentences (mms) and so race and drugs were discussed -- but there were two issues here that weren't covered that are at the whole rationale for this mms argument --- one in favor, and one against --- please return to this topic some time in the future to give these two issues an airing out:

1) politics --- isn't it interesting that its the Republican party that is pushing the mms -- and note please, as one of your guests remarked that things such as murder deserve a severe response --- then why not mass murder --- such as lying to the American People and their Congress and thus getting the US into a protracted war. WHY THE DOUBLE STANDARD ? Could it be politics? The mms should go!

2) sentencing disparity reflects the public's anger over the actions of those who do crimes related to crack as compared to powder cocaine (ie. other crimes, committed to pay for their drug habits / and etc.). Yes, most of the people who do powder cocaine are either white, or wealthy, or both (please note there are very few if any rich, black crack users; like their white counterparts, they prefer NOT to use crack). Most people who do powder cocaine never think about breaking into your car or house to steal things to pay for their recreational drug use --- but the crack users are a dangerous group who will do just about anything for their next crack fix. By the way, I would consider meth (ie. methamphetamine ) to be even more dangerous than crack --- somehow the chronic users loose something of their humanity -- their ability to exercise judgment -- this makes them extremely dangerous (think crazed killers) as opposed to crack (think crazed thieves). The mms should be applied -- but only to those who deserve such.

Thus, the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing (mms) should be viewed in the context of these two sub-issues that no one is willing, or knowledgeable enough, to discuss --- but discuss them we must, or fail at equality.

John Wolfe.

Sent by John Wolfe | 3:23 PM | 12-12-2007

Since the Supreme Court is considered at least as conservative (if not more so) than it has been in recent decades, why is it that these mandatory sentences are being overruled now?

Sent by Eric Rayburn | 3:25 PM | 12-12-2007

I a glad to hear that the sentencing guidelines have been put back in the Judges hands.

I'm always surprised to see how harsh the US sentences are when compared to those I read about in other countries. Canda, New Zealand etc.

The DA's argument that it will bring a large number of cases before the court is irrelevant. It is better to bring a fair sentence than to extend an unfair one. It reminds me of the DA's who refuse to retest cases now that there is DNA evidence which may prove innocence.

Sent by Tory Patnoe, Denver, CO | 3:32 PM | 12-12-2007

One of the most interesting points of the show seems to have gone mostly unnoticed during the ensuing discussion. There was a lot of talk about the fairness issue. With the USSC decision as a watershed: support for the decision was equated with support for fairness, with the reverse applied (unfairly) to anyone who opposed the decision. The most important point, to my mind, was that made by one of the later guests: that many of the people whose sentences will be shortened by this decision will not have time to complete the established reintegration processes of the penal system. This is a classic case of legislative and/or judicial shortsightedness. While I think many, perhaps most people (myself included) support parity in sentencing for similar crimes, the practical fallout of a decision written as this one has been might be quite negative -- the release of potentially violent offenders without complete rehabilitation. To say nothing of the stress to the court system affected by the sudden need for rapid reprocessing of the sentencing of 10% of the prison population. The costs, both monetary and with regards to what the courts might otherwise be focusing their energies on, might be quite substantial. To say nothing of what might slip through the cracks due to the rush and inevitable overwork of court officials. Mr. Conan himself pointed out that offenders at high risk for violence would be prevented from release by the judicial review prior to their parole. Would this necessarily be so during such a crunch?

Sent by Aidan Sonoda | 3:45 PM | 12-12-2007

How will this new sentencing guideline affect inmates in the state prisons?

Sent by Barb | 10:20 AM | 12-13-2007

Has no one else seen the glaring lack of logic in this reduction of sentences to restore fairness? Why not restore fairness and balance by making the sentence for powder Cocaine just as harsh as the former Crack sentences? After all if there were no Cocaine then there will be no Crack. I suspect Cocaine being the republican drug of choice may have something to do with this backward movement.

Sent by Scott Schulte | 10:45 AM | 12-13-2007

I agree that, to equalize, raise the sentencing for the other drugs. These drugs are devastating to the future of this country.

Sent by Kenneth Martin | 9:44 PM | 12-13-2007

All drugs need to be legalized. Only criminal activity should be punished.

Sent by Jay E Garth Jr | 8:14 PM | 12-14-2007

The crack and cocain issues can go on for years because everyone has their own opinion. So let me state mines. The feds only put harsh crimes on crack than cocain because crack brings in more revenue than cocain any day. The feds would hate to have some large amounts of money put into the hands of a common man/woman. And let alone it can not be taxed so their missing a big bite of the american crack pie. As far as the sentencing being different, that was rediculos from the beginning. You would think that those who came up with the law would have thought back to physical science when the teacher explains that changing the form of a matter is a physical change and not a chemical change and the properties from what it's made of is the SAME. "Crack makes users act out in violence more than cocaine users." What coke head you know don't end up using crack or a more serious drug? Eventually when the coke users hit rock bottom and their family is in debt or homeless(by the way, that's when the feds started allowing them to file bankrupt to keep the rich, rich) they will turn to crack as an alternative. Especially with it being cheap and accessible. So say if all the crack and cocain was taken off the face of the earth what would it be? Ok, I'll tell you; more will inhale useless products, blow up neighborhoods with meth labs, OD on prescription drugs which makes billions of dollars every year and probably have twice the amount of addicts than crack and cocain, but they pay taxes, and the crime will triple. Why would the crime triple? I'll get this one too. It will triple because now drug users have to find a drug that satisfies them and since it's not accessible any more it's way more expensive so they are going to do what they have to do to get their high. Whats the differnce from a crack head stealing from stores and houses and a cocain head that takes out loans to get high all day and never pay them back leaving our country in more debt? I approve the fact that someone opened their eyes and realized that putting the dealer in jail doesn't stop others from using it. They just make someone else on the streets rich. O' I forgot they have the dealers in their working 50+ hours weekly and pay them about $19 a month. Then sale the made product for $x.Now that's unconstitutional. I now believe that careers are given to those who have a piece of paper saying they're qualified rather than those who have been in the career field for years. Everyone is making laws for the "danger areas" in the US but never even lived in the target areas. How do you know what's best for that area? The numbers the analysis come up with will not help law makers touch the surface of the PROBLEM.

Sent by Bree Williams | 5:00 PM | 12-21-2007

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from