Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ohio must correct ‘crack cocaine’ sentencing disparity

The Youngstown Vindicator
Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ohio continues to use an unfair sentencing law that is a relic of a more violent era. There was a dramatic surge in violent crime in America between 1980 and 1995. In 1991, there were 783 murders in Ohio. By 2009 that number had decreased by 34 percent to 519 murders. Many attributed the surge in violence to the introduction of crack cocaine into many communities.

In response, draconian drug laws were enacted to combat the hysteria surrounding the “crack epidemic.” The penalties were significant and far reaching. The Sentencing Project reported that Americans incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons went from 19,000 in 1980 to 265,000 by 2008.

In 1986, the federal government enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Under the law, a person convicted of crack cocaine possession got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. The result of the 100:1 ratio is that sentences for crack cocaine offenders were often much longer than those for powder cocaine offenders.

Ohio lawmakers adopted penalties for crack cocaine in the mid-1990s and established a ratio that fluctuated between 10:1 and 2:1 for low-level crack and powder offenses, according to a report by the Sentencing Project.

Harsher sentences

The chief complaint with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was that the harsher drug sentences for crack cocaine possession disproportionately affected African-Americans. A 2006 U.S. Sentencing Commission Report found that 82 percent of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were black and only 8.8 percent were white — even though more than two-thirds of people who used crack cocaine were white.

It’s not as though the racial issue had just come to the nation’s attention. In 1991, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down its state crack/powder cocaine statute because it was “racially discriminatory in its impact.” In fact, 11 years before the Sentencing Commission’s 2006 findings, the Commission recommended to Congress that the 100:1 ratio be reduced to a 1:1 ration. Congress rejected the recommendation.

Fifteen years passed before President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The new legislation reduced the ratio to about 18:1. The new law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack.

Last month, the Sentencing Project released a report, Cracked Justice. The report found that 13 states maintain sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Ohio is one of those states. The report found that penalties for crack cocaine are far harsher than those for powder cocaine. For example, a person caught with only 25 grams of crack can be convicted of a first-degree felony, while it requires at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to face the same sanctions.

Equalizing sentences

The Cracked Justice report suggests that attempts to reduce penalties for crack failed in Ohio because lawmakers did not want to be perceived as being soft on crime. During the 2007 legislative session, Ohio lawmakers considered a bill that would have equalized crack and powder sentences by enhancing penalties for powder cocaine while leaving crack penalties the same.

“We’ve got a growing problem in our rural areas of the state, and many of these members are well aware of the problem,” State Sen. Ray Miller told the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time. “Fundamentally, equalizing the penalties at a higher level as opposed to bringing them down was key to passage.” The measure did not make it out of committee in the state House.

In 2010, Ohio policymakers attempted to reform the state criminal justice system through a comprehensive package of bills that included eliminating the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. The package included measures to remove any definitions that distinguished crack cocaine from powder cocaine. While the measure garnered bipartisan support, it did not pass.

‘Gate pay’

Ohio has an $8 billion revenue shortfall. The state’s austerity plan needs to look beyond the elimination of expenditures like the $75 “gate pay” given to inmates when they are released from prison. The $374,000 saved over two years on gate pay would pale in comparison to savings from restructured sentencing policies.

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