Politics & Law

Early release

Jonathan Simon

Nov. 1 marks the beginning of a process that is likely to see thousands of federal prisoners convicted under the notorious 1980s anti-crack laws set free years earlier than their original sentences called for. These laws set a 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes under federal laws. Harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences (a fad during the late 1980s) that kicked in for people caught possessing more than 500 grams of powder cocaine (a large scale dealer one would imagine), kicked in for someone carrying a mere 5 grams of crack cocaine (who could be merely a user contemplating a binge).

The difference in treatment, which has proven indefensible in criminological or pharmacological terms, had an undeniable racial impact, selecting blacks for especially long sentences. After years of criticism, Congress finally enacted a reform law reducing (but not completely eliminating) the differential and President Obama signed it into law last year. As a result, according to Jessica Gresko’s reporting for the AP (read it here) as many as 2000 federal prisoners will go free this year and as many as 12,000 over the next several years, based on sentence recalculations carried out to implement the law by the US Sentencing Commission.

But as much as there is to be said about the perniciousness of the crack cocaine sentencing law, the other part of the story is the importance of the precedent that has been set here about early release. In recent decades, politicians have locked themselves into the view that no one sent to prison, should ever be released early (remember Wilie Horton). As a result most states and federal justice system are criss-crossed with rigid laws, like California’s absurd three-strikes law, that lock in very long sentences and guaranteeing that our prisons will become the new retirement system for the middle aged.

That is why despite the distinctive politics behind the crack cocaine sentencing revision, it is a precedent that should be generalized. The releases beginning today are powerful testimony that harsh laws, enacted in the glare of alarming media coverage of a crime “trend” (in that case the new super drug “crack cocaine” that was supposedly turning the inner cities into zombie lands), can be revised.

The resulting effects, which will hopefully be carefully studied by criminologists, may offer evidence of the enormous gain our stricken society could gain from pursuing a much broader early-release agenda that would see the repeal of so called “truth-in-sentencing” laws that prevent early release through parole and reconsideration of many sentences “super-sized” in the era of boundless prison expansion.

Over the coming months and years, thousands of people whose incarceration was once deemed essential for public safety are going to be released. The federal government will save millions of dollars. Thousands of families will be reunited producing incalculable ripples of pro-social effects. Given that most people released are in their thirties and forties, and have served years already in prison, the likelihood is very little new crime will result.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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