On November 1, new guidelines for crack cocaine offenders went into effect that lowered the average sentence from 10 years and 1 month to 8 years and 10 months. This is the first change in 21 years to drug possession sentencing guidelines, and a long overdue step forward in the fight for racial equality in sentencing. Racial disparities in the prison population have increased because inequalities in sentencing have disproportionately affected people of color, especially Blacks, to the point that Van Jones, Co-Founder and President of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has called incarceration “the new Jim Crow.”
The Sentencing Commission expects that these new guidelines will reduce the prison population by 3,800 in the next 15 years, and even more so if the commission decides to apply the guidelines retroactively to more than 19,500 inmates sentenced under the previous guidelines.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Blacks were almost three times more likely than Hispanics and five times more likely than whites to be in jail. Unequal and overly punitive sentencing has exacerbated this and contributed to the destruction of communities and families of color. The connections between poverty, race, and incarceration is undeniable, so it is promising to see this first step towards systemic reform.