A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Crack

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mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the Nixon administration that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.

The first time in about 40 years that a minimum mandatory has been repealed.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.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter


  1. Anonymous12:01 AM

    I would hardly consider hard drugs to be non violent. The way they ruin peoples' lives is in many ways far worse that a one time violent crime. So you got carjacked. Provided you didn't get injured, you will get over it and life goes on. A heroin or crystal meth addiction destroys not only you, but everyone who cares about you over a long time. Crack cocaine has been thing (among other factors) that has shredded the black community.

  2. Convicted drug users and dealers are considered non-violent offenders? The illegal drug trade causes violent crimes like aggravated assault, torture and murder. Domestic violence is rampant where drug abuse is involved. The incidence of child abuse and neglect is also rampant when parents are druggies. What exactly is non-violent about it?

    Illegal drugs don't just harm those directly involved, they destroy families, businesses, communities, entire nations. Look at the border of this country. Drugs turn otherwise worthwhile human beings into evil incarnate.

    We should be strengthening the penalties, not relaxing them, imo.

  3. Hi Fair,

    I've heard this script countless times, but the stats don't bear out. They just don't. It's just "made for T.V." bullshit that the public buys into.

  4. And Fair, no, I'm not going to engage in a 30 comment back and forth with you on this topic. Come spend a few months in a criminal courtroom and you'll see what I'm talking about.

  5. It's not "made for TV" bullshit Brian when you see it happen first hand in your own family & your own community. I'm not opining about sensationalized TV shows & news reports.

  6. Anonymous2:15 AM


    I do work in the criminal justice world. I don't spend much time in court because nearly everything in my county (except drunk driving for some reason) is plea bargained down to peanuts, but I do handle a lot of cases at the investigation and charging stage. Tell you what. Look at an adorable 1 year old girl whose mom "forgot" about her and left her someplace in bad weather for hours because the crack cocaine was calling to her. Sure, you can work your magic and defend the mother in court. You might even rationalize it and feel good about it in the way defense lawyers do. I see cases like that and see red. No, I don't violate the mother's civil rights. She only gets charged with what she did with no use of force beyond that needed to effect the arrest. But this is an entirely innocent one year old girl whose life if f***ed before it even really began because of those bloody fracking non-violent chemicals. Maybe you can talk with some parents, as I have, at their last rope after years of hell because their only child has pissed his life away on a heroin addiction. Or spend time speaking with young guys who see nothing morally wrong with beating the tar out of someone who doesn't pay a drug debt. These are all real world case I have dealt with personally that might well have not happened if you removed "non violent" hard drugs from the equation.

    That isn't a script and it isn't made for TV. I have handled those cases, talked with the folks and in some instances charged the suspects. Non violent my foot. Drugs have done far more damage to those lives than a simple one time theft or assault could ever do.