June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of a "war on drugs" — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world's largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.
Today is an exciting day for the ACLU and criminal justice advocates around the country. Following much thought and careful deliberation, the United States Sentencing Commission took another step toward creating fairness in federal sentencing by retroactively applying the new Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) guidelines to individuals sentenced before the law was enacted. This decision will help ensure that over 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are African-Americans — will have the opportunity to have their sentences for crack cocaine offenses reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.
This decision is particularly important to me because, as director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, I have advocated for Congress and the sentencing commission to reform federal crack cocaine laws for almost 20 years. In 1993, the ACLU lead the coalition that convened the first national symposium highlighting the crack cocaine disparity entitled "The 100 to 1 Ratio: Racial Bias in Cocaine Laws." Now, 25 years after the first crack cocaine law was enacted in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the sentencing commission has taken another step toward ending the racial and sentencing disparities that continue to exist in our criminal justice system.
By voting in favor of retroactivity, I am pleased that the commission chose justice over demagoguery and concluded that retroactivity was necessary to ensuring that the goals of the FSA were fully realized. It is important to remember that even with today's commission vote not every crack cocaine offender will have his or her sentence reduced. Judges are still required to determine whether a person qualifies for a retroactive reduction so, contrary to what some have said, this is not a "get out of jail free card."
While we celebrate the sentencing commission's decision, we must not lose sight of our ultimate goals — removing all disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing and ending the misguided, ineffective and harmful war on drugs that continues essentially unabated. The FSA and its retroactive application are extremely important steps in a national ACLU campaign to combat mass incarceration in this country. We hope this is just one of many victories to come in our crusade to break the addiction to incarceration in this country.