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Oct 02nd

Supreme court finally abolishes unfair sentencing

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Supreme court finally abolishes unfair sentencing

By Judge Greg Mathis

Passed in the mid-1980s, federal drug sentencing laws forced judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a drug-related offense, regardless of their direct role in the crime or circumstances surrounding the event. The laws demonstrated a clear bias towards offenders convicted in crack-cocaine related cases, many of whom were African-American and from impoverished, urban neighborhoods. Passed in the mid-1980s, federal drug sentencing laws forced judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a drug-related offense, regardless of their direct role in the crime or circumstances surrounding the event. The laws demonstrated a clear bias towards offenders convicted in crack-cocaine related cases, many of whom were African-American and from impoverished, urban neighborhoods. A little over twenty years later, the Supreme Court has issued a ruling that gives judges much more power when sentencing drug offenders. With this new freedom, judges can use their influence to encourage rehabilitation and education, saving taxpayers billions and turning around the lives of many young people of color.

Ten years after the sentencing laws were enacted, the average federal drug sentence for African-Americans was 49 percent higher than that of whites, the number of women in prison for drug offenses increased by 421 percent and there was a more than 80 percent increase in the federal prison population. Under the previous law, a dealer with five grams of crack cocaine received the same punishment as one who had 500 grams of powder cocaine; a 100-to-1 disparity. Supporters of the inequitable sentencing claimed crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and should therefore come with stricter sentences. Studies later showed that crack cocaine was no more dangerous than powdered cocaine.

The recent Supreme Court ruling says the federal sentencing guidelines should be used to advise judges, not bind them to sentences that are clearly unfair. The guidelines are now but one factor trial judges have to consider when handing down a sentence. Judges are now able to reduce prison sentences for crack cocaine related crimes, ending a two-decades long racially biased sentencing policy that put thousands of Black men behind bars, limiting their futures and weakening the Black family and community.

With this ruling, the Supreme Court has taken a first step towards racial justice. The battle, however, is not over. Congress must work to monitor the nation's courts and ensure that sentencing across the country is equitable. If disparities are found, then new laws - fair laws - must be crafted. While there is still work to be done, this is a positive first step towards a balanced and fair criminal justice system.

Judge Greg Mathis is national vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


 

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