A few weeks ago, we wrote about the need for a sea change in sentencing laws after a 15-year-old boy, Traivon, was sentenced to six life sentences without the possibility of parole in prison in Virginia for his participation in an armed robbery. Draconian sentencing laws and mandatory minimum sentences have frequently been cited as one of the major sources for America’s modern-day problem with mass incarceration—a fatal combination of “tough-on-crime” policies and extreme racial bias and prejudice in the criminal justice system.
But yesterday, amazingly, the pendulum in Washington swung farther away from mass incarceration. President Obama commuted the drug sentences for eight individuals in federal prison—two of whom were serving sentences of 15 years or more and six of whom were serving life sentences—for crack cocaine-related offenses. Most of these individuals will be released from prison in the next 120 days.
These eight individuals were sentenced to long prison terms when the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine (more popular among African American users) and powder cocaine (more popular among affluent White users) was 100:1. You did not misread. A person would receive a sentence 100 times longer for a crack cocaine-related offense than a person with a powder cocaine offense. While crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, this unbelievably unfair disparity in sentencing sent thousands of African Americans into prison, a regime that ballooned our prison population by 800%. According to a report from the ACLU, “under the 100:1 regime, African Americans served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.”
In 2010, Congress made one of its first bipartisan breakthroughs on this problem with passage of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). The FSA reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. While 18:1 is still unfair and has an impact on the racial makeup of our prisons, it was a huge bipartisan victory to begin changing the political tide on this issue. All eight of the people whose sentences were commuted yesterday would already be out of prison under the newer drug sentencing laws.
At a time like this, Root & Rebound feels incredibly proud to have President Obama as the leader of our Nation, with a political team that supports criminal justice reform at his wings. Since mass incarceration has been a policy and practice sewn by people in power, it can certainly be unwound by those people, as well. We must continue to believe that major shifts like the one that took place yesterday in Washington can and will continue to happen if we show our support.
Also at a time like this, we take pause as a nonprofit that hopes to serve as a reentry center to our Bay Area community. Out of federal prisons and particularly out of California prisons and jails, more and more people are coming home. Most people in politics now recognize that mass incarceration is a huge problem in our country—expensive, a waste of human and financial capital, and the product of extreme racial bias in our criminal laws and enforcement of those laws. But as more people get out, what will we put in place to support their reentry? Over the past few months and into the New Year, Root & Rebound is devoted to answering that question in our local community. We hope that a sea change to reform our draconian sentencing laws will be coupled with genuine support for reentry and for people returning to the outside.
This is the time. Join us!
—The R & R Team