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  2. Criminal Justice

Sentencing: A Major Driver of Mass Incarceration

February 22, 2016


Every day we are becoming more aware of the plethora of factors stimulating mass incarceration. First off, this phenomenon unique to the United States describes a system of control that includes the over-criminalization and hyper-imprisonment of entire racial, social, and economic groups.

Every day we are becoming more aware of the plethora of factors stimulating mass incarceration. First off, this phenomenon unique to the United States describes a system of control that includes the over-criminalization and hyper-imprisonment of entire racial, social, and economic groups. Now, approximately 40 years after Nixon’s declaration on the War on Drugs in 1971, America’s prison and jail population has astoundingly increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 in the mid-1970s to 2.2 million people today. This puts the U.S. at number one for locking up more of its population than any other developed nation in the world.

One of the most important drivers that significantly characterize mass incarceration is sentencing, especially as pertains to mandatory minimums. The most controversial set of mandatory minimums is for drug-related crimes. These minimums are strictly dependent on the character of the drug and the amount the individual has at the time of the arrest. Most notable are the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine related crimes.

When the crack epidemic reached its height in the 1980s, it had already destroyed countless lives and plagued several racial minority communities in the U.S. Realistically cocaine was the higher-end form of the drug (i.e. the smallest half-gram bag cost roughly $50) and therefore appealed most to those who could afford it. But crack changed the playing field because it was inexpensive to produce. Drug peddlers saw they could break cocaine down and double its amount by adding other chemical agents (i.e. baking soda), thus selling more for cheap. Now at $5 or $10 a gram, anyone, especially those in poor Black communities, could afford to get high. From then on, crack was exclusively viewed as an inner-city, “street-corner” drug.

The federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986 was embedded with disparity considering users of crack cocaine suffered harsher mandatory minimums than those of powder cocaine. It is clear the unjust sentencing has been and still is inextricably linked to racial discrimination. Today, African Americans make up 85 percent of the 12,000 people in federal prison for crack cocaine related crimes, largely due to the 100:1 powder cocaine to crack disparity promulgated by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. But in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) which reduced the 100:1 ratio down 18:1. Although FSA made the ratio more “fair”, it did not apply to those who committed their crimes before 2010. All in all, the war on drugs was supposed to address the epidemic of drugs negatively affecting Americans writ large, not to distinguish who was more befitting of punishment while everyone was committing the same crime.

Mandatory minimums were created with the intention of helping the government prosecute high level drug offenders. Yet it has been shown that the amounts that result in these mandatory minimums are not even carried by high level traffickers. Therefore the minimums mostly ensnared low-level, non-violent, even first-time drug offenders. Most importantly, these mandatory minimums have historically been more detrimental to minority groups, who currently make up more than 60% of both state and federal prison populations. Senator Grassley’s proposed bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA), includes retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the mandatory sentence for crack cocaine related crimes for those already serving long sentences since the 1980s. Surely, we understand the bill does not address the system of mass incarceration entirely, but reducing sentencing is a first step in the right direction of tackling this major issue.