The Razor Wire is a quarterly published by The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform.
Senate Bill 1874:
Recognition of injustice is not reform
Called the "Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2001," and introduced by drug warrior, Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and co-sponsored by another, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) last December, it is bold admission that crack laws have had negative, disproportionate racial impact on people of color. The proponents of the bill want elderly people to be released, and they argue that low-level players in drug conspiracies are serving too much prison time.
Sadly, the bill doesn't address any of these problems, aside from lowering the current five-year sentence for merely possessing crack to one year. After that, the bill turns right. It favors raising guideline sentencing numbers for powder cocaine convictions, typifying new circumstances during commission of a drug law violation, quickly adding more years to an already incredibly stiff guideline sentence while furthering the overcrowding of federal prisons, the final, terrible expense in dollars and human suffering.
Future drug defendants, from provisions of this bill, would not be sentenced to more than 10 years if they had a 'minimal role' in the offense, which on the face of it sounds like reform. "What is a minimal role?" Chuck Armsbury asks. "The prosecutors and FBI agents decide what the role is going to be, and the snitches tell the story."
In December, according to the Wall Street Journal, Hatch and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), wrote Diana Murphy, Chair of the US Sentencing Commission, requesting "guidance as we continue to evaluate the appropriateness of the penalty differential between powder and crack cocaine." The Sentencing Commission published requests for comment in the Federal Register, and, rumor is, the comment time has been extended.
The US Sentencing Commission admits that only about 67 crack defendants who have entered the federal prison system in the last three years would have been helped by its recent proposals. Would have is an operative word here, indicating no hint of retroactivity for prisoners anywhereeven as the word "reform" is awkwardly attached to a sentencing bill that would have only helped 67 people out of thousands upon thousands of crack arrests annually.
"It is political grandstanding; they are trying to appease our mounting dissent," warns Gary Callahan, prisoner of the drug war and co-founder of the November Coalition. "Most prosecutors throw an 'intent to distribute' charge on top of the snitch's tale. I'm not sure I've never met a crack prisoner doing time for possession, but I've never been in the camps. So, I've asked men that have been to the camps. They haven't met any either."
Sessions, Hatch and the entire Congress and Sentencing Commission do not really need this reminder, but perhaps our members do: Because people of color are historically policed as a group more repressively than white people, 85 percent of powder cocaine defendants are black or brown.
"This train of pain may be headed in a new direction," wrote David Sullivan, a prisoner of the drug war. "But they are tentative, insufficient steps that only recognize that there has been great injustice in sentencing."
"Our leaders have been ignoring the fact that prosecutors have a plethora of weapons in their legal arsenals. This power remains, just as the continued judicial approval of it. The result is simply license for continuing abuse, misuse and ever longer prison sentences," Sullivan concluded.
The bill is not reform, only an admission of injustice in the present federal sentencing system, plus more proposed injustice. Members write to tell how disappointed they were that the news of "reform" was only a cloak for a rash of harsher guideline sentencing. Most feel ever more forsaken and abandoned by leadership.
"Words rolling around in DC need to be taken to heart. To make such admissions of racial disparity or question it openly, such as Sen. Leahy has done, was encouraging," said Nora Callahan, Director of the November Coalition. "But the bill itself is another entire entity, with a title designed to raise hope, and contents that are cruel. Now that is a mixed message. The drug war is cruel, though, and you'd think we would all just get used to it. We don't, though. Every day the injustice breaks our hearts all over again. Bills like S. 1874 just make us more determined to expose the injustice, and makes it easier for us to do it, too."
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