The United States has as a population of approximately 300 million people. The world is comprised of approximately 6 billion people. That means that if you’re a human on planet earth, there is a 5% chance that you are an American. However, if you are a human who is imprisoned somewhere on earth, there is a 25% chance that you are in an American prison. How did a free country that believes in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness turn into one that imprisons more of its own people than any other country? Drugs.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law. This law was designed to be a major blow against drug pushers and drug users. The law had two significant aspects to it that are directly responsible for the enormous United States prison population. First, the law created a mandatory minimum sentence for simple drug possession over a certain weight. This mandatory minimum sentence was five years incarceration without the possibility of parole. This included not only “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin, but also included marijuana. Second, the law contained an inexplicable 100 to 1 ration for the weight necessary to qualify for this mandatory minimum between crack-cocaine and powder cocaine. This means that under the law, you had to possess 500 grams of powder cocaine to be eligible for this mandatory minimum. However, to be sentenced under this same provision, you just need to be caught with 5 grams of crack-cocaine. If these simple numbers aren’t shocking enough, let me put them in proper perspective. 500 grams is equivalent to half of one kilogram. A law enforcement official with whom I am friends tells me that in New York today, the current street value for half a kilo of cocaine is usually between $25,000 to $35,000. Meanwhile, the current street value for 5 grams of crack-cocaine is approximately $150-200. This disparity is amazing considering crack is cocaine that is simply “cooked” with chemicals like baking soda.
Therefore, for a person to be found guilty of possessing a half-kilo of cocaine, he is likely to be a relatively prolific drug dealer. Conversely, possession of just 5 grams of crack is more indicative of a low-level drug dealer or even a user. Based on my experiences both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, people caught in possession of low amounts of crack are usually themselves addicted to the substance, even if they are also dealing it. People at this level tend to deal drugs to support their addiction.
The federal government of the United States currently incarcerates over 200,000 people. Approximately 7% of these people are considered to be “violent offenders” by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In 1985, just one year before the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the federal prison population was a little over 20,000. The 1986 law, along with similar laws enacted by the individual states, is directly responsible for the enormous prison population of the United States. A prison population that, at least in my opinion, is largely comprised of drug addicts.
So that’s the bad news. The good news, is that the people of the United States are beginning to realize that this enormous prison population is inconsistent with the ethos of a free country. And luckily, the government seems to be on board. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act. This law, among other things, has two main provisions. First, it reduced the crack to cocaine ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. Second, it also reduced the likelihood of receiving a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for simple crack possession. Moreover, Congress is mulling whether to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014. This law is intended to further decrease the prison population by giving judges more discretion in sentencing. It would also try to eliminate the significant racial disparity among federal inmates.
In my opinion, this push for sentencing reform is occurring because of sincerely held beliefs by Attorney General Holder that these sentences truly aren’t fair and because the United States just doesn’t have the money to house this many inmates. GovTrack.us says that this bill has a 57% chance of becoming law. Let’s see what happens.