At last, crack mandatory reform

For the first time since Richard Nixon declared War on Drugs, Congress has cut back on a mandatory drug-sentencing provision. The amount of crack necessary to trigger a 5-year mandatory will increase from 5 grams (about $500 worth) to 28 grams. The change – not, alas, retroactive – would influence about 2900 sentences per year, cutting them an average of 27 months. That’s more than 6000 prisoner-years saved annually. With a federal prison bed costing about $40,000, that’s nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. [Update: CBO reports a much smaller number, based on the idea that the Bureau of Prisons will choose to reduce crowding – which improves prisoners’ lives but doesn’t save much money – rather than to close, or not build, institutions.]

This time, the bill had lots of conservative Republican support, but the ranking Republican on House Judiciary demonstrated why it’s taken more than 20 years to change the law by pulling out the usual demoagogic warnings about rampant drug abuse. The Fraternal Order of Police also weighed in on the wrong side.

Sens. Dick Durbin and Jeff Sessions and Rep. Bobby Scott all deserve congratulations, though I think an administrative fix – regulating the conditions under which the mandatory could be invoked by federal prosecutors so that only worthwhile cases could be brought – would have been cleaner and quicker.

This is one more indication that at least marginally sensible drug policy is now politically discusable.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “At last, crack mandatory reform”

  1. Gosh, at this pace we'll have a rational discussion of cannabis policy at the federal level in 20 years. Or Cali can approve prop 19 and speed th inevitable up.

  2. Considerably less evil, but I think still an awful distance from sensible. Think of it: after 15 years and an unimaginable expenditure of political energy, we have now reached the point where one of two identical acts is "only" punished 18 times more harshly than the other.

  3. Echoing Michael, yeah – it is interesting to note that now that Racism Is Dead(tm), we're only officially 18x more harsh on stereotypically black drug users than white.

    Question for Mark – any idea where the weird sentence enhancements for selling to people 64 years and up came from? That seemed really random to me.

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