Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

Sentencing Disparity On Its Way Out — And It’s About Time

Jun 03, 2011

Somewhere in a U.S. prison today, a young Black man sits behind bars counting down the years, months and days till he sees freedom. After spending the better part of his adolescence locked away for cocaine distribution, he has become hardened and likely more dangerous while his White cellmate was released years prior for virtually the same crime. The difference? The Black kid sold crack and received a severe mandatory sentence, while the White kid distributed grams of loose cocaine for which there was no mandatory sentence. It should come as no surprise that this disparity between crack cocaine offenses and powdered cocaine offense has applied to different folks across unfortunate racial lines. President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have quickly and diligently worked to reduce this inequity, and now they're ready to take it one step further.

In August of last year, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act which tackled this inconsistency head on. Lowering the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to an 18:1 ratio, this law is a tremendous initial method of working towards a more just judicial system. But as AG Holder so eloquently stated on Wednesday, in order to promote public safety and public trust, this progressive legislation must be applied retroactively to the thousands already enduring harsh sentences for these low-level drug offenses.

Testifying before the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Washington, AG Holder not only stressed the significance of the Fair Sentencing Act that is now being implemented nationwide, but he also emphasized the urgent need to apply this law to prior cases. As the Associate Press reported, a year ago, a drug dealer caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory 10 years in federal prison, but with this new rule, that time has been cut to as little as 5 years. If these new sentencing laws are in fact made retroactive, some 12,000 current inmates could see their time reduced by an average of three years. Holder added that this regulation wouldn't apply to those individuals who used weapons in the commission of their offense or those that had extensive criminal records. This of course may reduce the number of people affected, but in essence it would create a safe and equitable method of applying the sentencing regulation.

We at National Action Network have been openly vocal about our objection towards drug sentencing inequality for some time now, and we are pleased that our president and AG Holder recognize the dire need to rectify this injustice. More than 60% of our prison population today is comprised of racial and ethnic minorities, and much of this is a direct result of the excessive mandatory penalties of the war on drugs according to The Sentencing Project. A shocking 3/4ths of all persons behind bars for drug offenses are people of color as the Project's website states, and for Black males in their twenties, 1 in 8 is in jail on any given day.

When such horrific stats continue to plague our society, and when there is a proven direct causal relation between harsh low-level drug sentences and incarceration rates among minorities, we must do something. For years we watched as more and more of our young men -- and women -- literally lost decades of their lives as offenders of similar crimes quickly found freedom. We are in no way, shape or form saying that breaking the law on any level is ever permissible, but what we are emphatically stating is that the hand of justice come down equally no matter what the race/ethnic make up is of the person involved. And we only hope that Congress heeds AG Holder's guidance in retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act. We will be patiently waiting.