April 9, 2008
New Federal Guidelines Correct Racial Disparities in Cocaine Sentences
Minority Inmates’ Sentences Being Reduced to Match Whites’
Madison—Senator Lena C. Taylor (D-Milwaukee) today applauded the implementation of reduced federal prison sentences for minorities convicted of cocaine crimes to correct decades of harsher sentences for crack dealers—who are usually black—than for powdered cocaine dealers who are primarily white.
“This reform is long overdue and corrects a particularly offensive racial disparity,” said Taylor. “People convicted of possessing one gram of crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone with 100 grams of the powder version, even if they were non-violent and had no previous criminal record.” Taylor testified on this issue last fall to the Commission on reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System. She is the chair of the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, and Housing.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency that sets guidelines, decided last December that prison inmates could request reduced sentences from judges to mitigate the disparities. However, the commission said that legislative reform by Congress is needed to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence differences. The result of decades of severe crack cocaine sentences is that black offenders’ sentences are from three to eight times longer than whites’.
Taylor noted that most of the prisoners involved are not hardened criminals. “Judges will have discretion now that they did not have before. They will get to decide any sentence reductions on a case-by-case basis, and won’t be likely to grant early release for criminals considered dangerous. Public safety will not be diminished by this change.”
The new guidelines went into effect in March, and federal prosecutors and the Milwaukee federal court have been processing inmate requests. Federal inmates who are eligible can contact the federal public defender’s office for help in getting their sentences reduced.