Yesterday Congress decided black people shouldn't go to prison for a significantly longer period of time that white people for using different forms of cocaine.
No, that's not a snarky way to describe what happened, it's what happened:
From the Washington Times:
Congress on Wednesday changed a quarter-century-old law that has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack-cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to abusers, mainly whites, caught with the powder form of the drug.
Gee, what a thought. Let's all celebrate.
The most significant part of what happened yesterday, is this:
The bill also eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the Nixon administration that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.
The first time in about 40 years that a minimum mandatory has been repealed. Unreal.
Minimum mandatory sentences were created to take discretion away from judges. It was the beginning of the Executive Branch telling the Judicial Branch they were not to be trusted. They would do what they were told. They would not look at a defendant as an individual, it would not matter how he otherwise lived his life. Sure, there's the "safety valve" that allows a judge to drop below the minimum mandatory, but we're still starting from a point of no discretion, unless certain factors come together like the sun, moon, and the stars.
About 10 years later, we had the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, telling judges to become bean counters and add up a bunch of numbers to determine a defendant's sentence.
The issue from yesterdays historic vote is not the end of the 100-1 ratio for crack to cocaine, it's the fact that for the first time in 40 years, we're taking a different road, going back to a little discretion.
I wish I could say it's the start of some serious sentencing reform. I don't think it is. We talk about all the non-violent people in prison serving ridiculous prison sentences, while idiots claim it's not true.
So yesterday's vote was a great thing, but let's not get all excited as if it's the beginning of anything.
It's just a crack.
Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Post to Twitter
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