Why are crack cocaine sentences longer than those for powder cocaine?

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Answered by: Teresa, An Expert in the Crime and Punishment - General Category
Crack cocaine sentences have long been much more harsh than those for powder cocaine. The disparity started in the 1980s, when crack cocaine started to ravish urban black communities in America. The federal government sought to crack down on the problem by implementing severe prison sentences for those people caught dealing crack cocaine. For example, someone caught with powder cocaine would have to have 100 grams of the drug to get the same sentence as someone caught with just one gram of crack cocaine.

The thought behind the thinking was that the harsh sentences would deter people from dealing the drug. However, not only did it fail at that, it also had the unintended consequence of focusing disproportionately on blacks. Because black people were the main users of the drugs, they were also the main dealers of it. That means that most of the people receiving the longer sentences have been black people. People across the country have long disputed this issue. Those who saw it as racism have fought to make the two drugs, which are both cocaine just in different forms, equal in terms of sentencing. They believe that people with the same amount of the drugs should be sentenced similarly.

However, other people have been afraid to look soft on crime, so they have continued to push for the disparity in powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentences. Change finally started a few years ago. The U.S. Congress finally approved legislation that decreased the disparity between the two crimes. Although they were still not equal, you didn't have to have so much powder cocaine to get the same sentence as a person with just one gram of crack cocaine. The new law was made retroactive, and hundreds of federal prisoners across the country were able to apply for lower sentences.

Congress took another step in 2011, reducing the difference even more. It has dropped to a ratio of 18:1, meaning someone with one gram of cocaine would get a similar sentence as someone with 18 grams of powder cocaine. The change was also made retroactive, and, in November 2011, hundreds more inmates had their sentences reduced. In some cases, the prisoner was found to have actually served more time than he should have under the new sentence and was released immediately. In other cases, inmates saw their original sentences of 30 years cut to 20 years, a significant decrease.

Not everyone received the decrease, though. The federal government banned certain prisoners from getting a reduction, including those convicted of selling mass quantities of crack cocaine. A disparity still exits, too. It is unknown whether Congress will ever make the two crimes equal in sentences. Concerns still exist that the people who get the cuts in prison time might go back to a life of a crime or that the drop in prison time will make criminals not worry about the consequences of their actions. The opponents of disparity, however, have continued to fight the battle.

Besides taking the battle to Congress, some activist groups have also appealed the convictions of some defendants on the grounds that they are overly harsh. One legal battle has recently been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

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