Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

November 24, 2004 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Commission Finds Racial Disparity In Jail Sentences

By Gary Fields

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON -- The percentage of minorities among the prison population has risen sharply since the federal sentencing-guideline system was created and minorities are more likely to serve long sentences than their white counterparts, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The report, a 15-year review of the guideline system, also found that defendants are staying in prison nearly twice as long as they did before Congress called for the creation of the Sentencing Commission and the guidelines. The review is intended to determine if the guidelines, which went into effect in November 1987, have achieved their goal of bringing consistency and predictability to sentencing.

The system of sentencing guidelines is up in the air as the Supreme Court is expected to rule, possibly as soon as next week, on the constitutionality of the guidelines. At issue is whether a judge can increase a defendant's sentence using factors not considered by juries or admitted to by defendants.

Before the guidelines were created, federal judges had nearly unfettered sentencing discretion and judges within the same courthouse handling similar cases could give widely divergent sentences for similar crimes.

According to the report, the federal guideline system has accomplished its goals by making sentencing more transparent and punishment "more certain and predictable." Defendants must serve at least 85% of their sentences now and judges must adhere to the guidelines unless they have compelling reasons to do otherwise. In the past, defendants served only 58% of their sentences.

However, the report said there is evidence that disparity remains in the system, often because of prosecutors' use of plea bargains. Evidence in the report shows that pleas understate the details of a crime more than a third of the time. "Uniformity of sentencing" still hasn't been "fully achieved," the report says.

Two of the more troubling findings of the commission's report focus on race. "While the majority of federal offenders in the preguidelines era were white, minorities dominate the federal criminal docket today" and their sentences are longer, it says. "The gap in average sentences between white and minority offenders was relatively small in the preguidelines era," the report said, but began widening once the guidelines went into effect. Now, "the typical black drug trafficker receives a sentence about ten percent longer than a similar white drug trafficker."

Much of the difference is attributed to mandatory minimum sentences that Congress has legislated, setting out specific sentences for certain crimes, usually those that are drug-related. For instance, possession of five grams of crack cocaine, which is used more frequently by low-income black people because it's cheaper, is grounds for a five-year mandatory sentence. Five hundred grams of powder cocaine, more popular among suburban whites, triggers a five-year sentence. The average crack defendant is sentenced to 115 months, compared with 77 months for defendants involved in powder-cocaine offenses.

The commission recommended that the cocaine sentencing disparity be addressed by raising the crack cocaine trigger amount to 25 grams.

Dan Dodson, a member of board of directors for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the report "says what we all already know. My hope is someone will pay attention to it."

(The full report is available at

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact