We continue to use the weight of narcotics as a proxy for the culpability of an individual defendant, despite this policy’s utter failure. If a kingpin imports 15 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $400 to carry it, they both face the same potential sentence. That’s because the laws peg minimum and maximum sentences to the weight of the drugs at issue rather than to the actual role and responsibility of the defendant. It’s a lousy system, and one that has produced unjust sentences for too many low-level offenders, created racial disparities and crowded our prisons . . .Some laws create remarkably low thresholds for the highest penalties. For example, my home state of Minnesota categorizes someone who sells just 10 grams of powder cocaine (the equivalent of 10 sugar packets) as guilty of a first-degree controlled-substance crime — the most serious of five felony categories. There is no real differentiation between the most culpable wholesaler and an occasional street dealer.The problem with recent legal reforms is that they don’t dispose of this rotten infrastructure. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes from 100-to-1 (meaning the same sentence applied to 100 grams of powder cocaine and to 1 gram of crack) to 18-to-1.What the Fair Sentencing Act didn’t do is change the basic weight-centric focus that has filled our prisons with narcotics convicts. There were 4,749 such prisoners serving federal time in 1980, before the harshest weight-based standards were implemented. As of 2013, that number was 100,026. As for the drugs themselves, they’re still here.The law compounds this problem by considering all members of a supposed conspiracy to be equally responsible.
May 7, 2014 at 1:48 PM EDT