With so many Blacks locked up for ridiculously long periods of time based simply on the possession of small quantities of crack cocaine, I can't help but welcome this development.

New federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders went into effect today, lowering the recommended sentencing range for people caught with the drug. The new U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines for those possessing 5 grams or more of crack cocaine are prison terms of 51 months to 63 months, down from the old range of 63 months to 78 months. The new range for offenders possessing at least 50 grams is 97 months to 121 months in prison, down from 121 months to 151 months. Those ranges apply for first-time crack-cocaine convictions.

Progress towards equal justice under the law right? Maybe so, but if you read just a little bit further...

Federal law sets a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine. It takes 500 grams of cocaine powder to warrant the same sentence. The crack-powder disparity has a strong racial dimension because more than four-fifths of crack cocaine offenders in federal courts last year were black.

Unmentioned is the number of powder cocaine defendants who are white, but you already know that it's probably the majority.

The war on drugs and mandatory minimums have helped keep prison beds full with a lot of nonviolent, first time offenders charged with possession.

Addicts in other words.

The real question is whether the states will adhere to the federal guidelines or ignore them. With many states using prisons as engines of economic development in rural areas, it stands to reason that many will not. Prisons are big business, and keeping them full is a bottom line issue. And nothing keeps inmates coming like mandatory minimums.

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