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Mass Incarceration and the Consequences of Disparate Drug-Sentencing
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By Andrew Somple 

One of the most profound dilemmas facing American society today is the issue of Mass Incarceration within the Untied States. The United States constitutes less than five percent of the total world population, however it comprises nearly 25% of the entire world’s prison population. Disparities in drug sentencing and the enactment of racist, unjustifiable mandatory minimum sentences have exploded the correctional systems population by 700% to 2.3 million individuals, from the beginning of the 1970’s. The most obvious reason for this incarceration boom, is not from a comparable rise in crime rates; it is the legalization of Anti-Drug Abuse laws passed in 1986 imposing mandatory minimums for simple possession of crack cocaine, and punishing offenders/crack cocaine carries by a sentencing ratio disparity of 100:1. That is, an individual with a mere five grams of crack cocaine, would have been punished to the same automatic amount of prison time as an individual in possession of a whopping 500 grams of powder cocaine. Although reduced significantly to 18:1 under President Obama’s Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and retroactively applied under President Trump’s First Step Act of 2018, the federal government should ameliorate this sentencing disparity to a 1:1 ratio, which will help terminate institutionally racist sentencing and make considerable advancements into reducing the United States’ inexplicable and absurd prison population.

 It is estimated that African-Americans constitute 15% of the entire drug using population of the US, however they comprise 37% of the criminal population arrested for drug offenses, 59% of the amount convicted, and nearly 75% of the entire United States criminal population sentenced to prison for drug offense violations. Since 1986, African Americans serve 49% more time than their white counterparts for these minimal drug violations, even though more than two-thirds of crack cocaine users are predominately White/Caucasian and/or Hispanic. Although the First Step Act has helped reform prison sentencing and reentry into society by providing vocational training, greater accessibility of in-prison rehabilitation, allowing for compassionate release, increasing good conduct time, and permitting prisoners and non-violent offenders to be granted access and proximity to their families on the basis of good conduct, the reduction of the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, is still unjustifiable and should be eradicated completely until both crack cocaine and powder cocaine are punished equally.

Government officials who served as the original proponents of such insensible drug sentencing were misled by drug experts, scientists, and medical professionals into believing that crack cocaine is an exceptionally more dangerous and addictive drug than powder cocaine. Public officials also put forth flawed evidence (and unproven) that crack cocaine users are inherently more aggressive and violent than powder cocaine users and as such, crack cocaine should be regulated, restricted, and punished accordingly. However, there is no scientific evidence to substantiate the claim that crack cocaine is a vastly different drug than powder cocaine. The two drugs are almost chemically identical and any differences between the two psychoactive substances are extremely minor. Powder cocaine and crack cocaine are essentially the same drug but in a different form. The process to manufacture crack cocaine involves, “mixing the powder form of cocaine with some base, such as baking soda or another substance, boiling it in water, and then removing the baking soda, which removes the hydrochloride.” Hydrochloride salt has no psychoactive properties, which intensifies the concentration of crack cocaine by a small amount relative to powder cocaine. Removing the hydrochloride allows crack cocaine users to efficiently smoke it, producing a somewhat more intense high, since smoking cocaine is a much more effective means of getting the drug into one's system than snorting it, albeit the experienced high is notoriously short-lived.  This fact invalidates the claim that crack cocaine is much more dangerous and/or different than powder cocaine. They are the same drug, except one form contains hydrochloride salt, and the other does not. Crack cocaine just provides the user with the perception that the drug contains more intense, psychoactive effects. Thus, the belief that crack is effectively more dangerous than powder coke is empirically inaccurate. The reason why disproportionate drug sentencing policies are definitively racist, is because they specifically target the tastes and the socioeconomic statuses of African-Americans, Hispanics, and generally more impoverished individuals. Crack cocaine is much less expensive than powder cocaine, and in turn appeals more so to people who have poorer socioeconomic statuses. Powder cocaine, contrarily, appeals more to wealthier individuals with deeper pockets who prefer powder cocaine and can readily afford the drug. Due to centuries of disenfranchisement under systems of slavery, Jim Crow law, and now harmful drug sentencing policies, African-Americans are on average considerably poorer and less educated than White/Caucasian Americans. Crack cocaine is more readily available, affordable, and prevalent in poorer, inner-city communities increasing the probability of purchases by African-American residents.

The issue regarding the blatant inconsistencies and incompetencies of drug sentencing in the United States is both a macro and micro issue, and the inescapable realties surrounding drugs and their distribution and supply, is another reason why drug ratio/quantity sentencing should be reduced completely to ensure equality and fairness. Reducing such sentencing polices would effectively reduce the appropriation of more than $80 billion by the federal government each year that goes directly to managing the cost of mass incarceration, a cost that rivals scores of international countries’ own domestic GDPs. Disparate drug sentencing has also led to a disturbing trend in the United States, the horrific divergence of immigration and criminalization, known plainly as “crimmigration”. Illegal immigrants who are arrested for simple possession, may now likely face immigration punitive measures like expropriation and even deportation. The lack of financial means of immigrants also enhances the possibility that they will face harsh mandatory minimum sentencing if they are in possession of trifling drug quantities of such drugs like crack cocaine, whose sentencing measures affects immigrants substantially due to its relative affordability.

In final illustration, the United States must make immediate policy changes to its drug sentencing policies to protect against further racist disenfranchisement and abuse of African-Americans and immigrants alike, who are more likely than their white counterparts to be impinged by disparate drug sentencing of crack cocaine to powder cocaine, due to their likelier impoverished socioeconomic states. It is clear that drug sentencing ratios should be reduced entirely to promote greater equality of sentencing and to effectively reduce prison populations. Authorities should direct their resources more efficiently to criminalize high-level drug traffickers instead of poor, low-level individuals who are only in mere possession of such drugs. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on incarcerating petty drug offenders, which must end as soon as possible as this phenomena is simply unsustainable. The U.S. government should provide better education, rehabilitation, shelter, and resources for when prisoners reenter society to decrease recidivism percentages, crime rates, federal expenditures, institutional racism, and continued drug use in areas of deprivation. Together, as one nation united, we can accomplish wonders and reform mass incarceration entirely; which will bring about a more productive, efficient, accepting, and safer society for generations to come.

Andrew M. Somple is a graduating senior at American University (Class of 2020). He is a CLEG major (Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government) and a Marketing minor. He has worked in membership, leadership, and committee offices on Capitol Hill. He also has experience in defense and marketing consulting as well as legal work/fields. 


Works Cited:

“Cracks in the System: 20 Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law.” American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/other/cracks-system-20-years-unjust-federal-crack-cocaine-law.

“Differences Between Crack and Cocaine (& Myths) - Oxford Treatment.” Oxford Treatment Center, Editorial Staff, 27 Aug. 2019, www.oxfordtreatment.com/substance-abuse/cocaine/crack-vs-cocaine/.

“Mass Incarceration.” American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration.

“Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education.” Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education | U.S. Department of Education, 7 July 2016, www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/report-increases-spending-corrections-far-outpace-education.

United States, Congress, James, Nathan. “The First Step Act of 2018: An Overview.” The First Step Act of 2018: An Overview, Congressional Research Service, 4 Mar. 2019. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45558.pdf.

“What Is Crimmigration?” BB&C, 4 Mar. 2019, www.hereforlife.com/what-is-crimmigration/.

“2015 Report to the Congress: Impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” United States Sentencing Commission, 8 Mar. 2017, www.ussc.gov/research/congressional-reports/2015-report-congress-impact-fair-sentencing-act-2010.



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