Sunday, March 14, 2010

racial disparities in sentencing persist

A new study from the U.S. Sentencing Commission suggests that racial disparities in sentencing have actually increased since the loosening of federal sentencing guidelines.  According to the report, since the 2005 Booker ruling that gave federal judges more discretion, Black men have received sentences at least 10% longer than those imposed on white men.  The report cautions that these statistics can't explain why these disparities exist, but it seems to me that the U.S. history of racial oppression and mass incarceration of men of color is one place to start looking for answers.  This report comes at a time when the U.S congress is considering legislation that would reduce disparities in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine, which has long been recognized as leading to racial disparities in drug-related sentencing.  Drug law reform is desperately needed, and reformers are right to take aim at mandatory sentencing that leads to racial disparities.  However, this new report suggests that we need to play close attention to states like New York that have recently reformed the harsh and ineffective Rockefeller drug laws (requiring mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses) with judicial discretion.  Judges, like the rest of us, are not free from racism, and dismantling the racist prison industrial complex cannot rest on judicial discretion alone.  This latest study is just more evidence that reforming our drug policy must go far beyond over turning mandatory sentencing.  It's time to think more deeply about how to reorient all of our public policies to reduce the harm associated both with drug use and the racism inherent in the "war on the drugs."

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