In early 2006, a young man named DeJarion Echols stood in a federal courtroom in Waco, Texas, and pleaded for leniency. After police found about 40 grams of crack cocaine, cash and an assault rifle in his bedroom, the promising athlete and father pleaded guilty to crack distribution and gun charges. "I made a bad choice" by dealing crack to pay for college, Echols, then 23, told U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. According to a court transcript, the judge declared in apparent frustration, "This is one of those situations where I'd like to see a congressman sitting before me." Then he did what federal law required: Smith sentenced Echols to two back-to-back 10-year prison sentences, one for each charge. Unless he gets a commutation, Echols will not go free till around 2026.
As Echols serves his 20 years, reformers of drug sentencing laws are closing in on a goal that was unthinkable even a few years ago: scrapping the federal sentencing structure established in 1986 that gives far harsher penalties for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, resulting in prisons packed with low-level, predominantly African American offenders. The mechanism is known as the "100-to-1 drug ratio," which gives crack cocaine 100 times the weight of powder cocaine. Under the ratio, a person convicted of selling five grams of crack about the weight of a teaspoon of salt triggers the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as a person convicted of selling 500 grams of powder cocaine, roughly the weight of a loaf of bread.
Even if that ratio is abolished, as appears increasingly likely, it's not clear that it will benefit offenders like Echols, who are already behind bars. The fates of tens of thousands of prisoners serving long sentences could hang in the balance as policymakers and politicians grapple with whether changes to the nation's crack laws should be applied retroactively.
The issue of crack sentencing goes to the heart of the credibility and fairness of the federal judicial system. The Department of Justice has launched a top-to-bottom review of sentencing and corrections policy, and crack-cocaine policy is a "vitally important" part of that, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer told TIME, so much so that the Administration fast-tracked its position on cocaine parity. "The criminal-justice system must be fair, and it must be perceived as being fair," Breuer says. "The 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder is perhaps the single worst symbol of unfairness in the system. There really is no longer any basis for it."
But the Department of Justice has not taken a position on retroactivity, and Breuer says the issue is "being looked at hard." The working group expects to make recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder within several months.
Reform advocates who have fought for an end to the 1980s crack sentencing laws are delighted that the stars have aligned for crack sentencing reform. At the same time, though, they say it would be a bitter disappointment if changes weren't retroactive. "It would be cruelly ironic not to make that change available to the very people whose cases led our lawmakers to make this decision," says Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has advocated on Echols' behalf.
The 100-to-1 rule is enshrined in the get-tough AntiDrug Abuse Act of 1986, which was intended to bring down drug kingpins and choke off the flow of crack. Research since has shown that many assumptions underlying the laws were flawed, such as the belief that crack is more dangerous than powder cocaine, making its users more violent. And they have had unintended consequences: putting away low-level street dealers rather than the big-time traffickers, with startling racial disparities.
About 77,000 people have been sentenced for crack-related federal crimes since 1992, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines. In 2008, over 80% of offenders sentenced that year were black and 10% were white. Among powder-cocaine offenders, over 52% were Hispanic, about 30% were black and about 16% were white. Crack-cocaine offenders receive longer sentences: 115 months on average in 2008, compared to 91 months for powder-cocaine offenders.
President Obama pledged in his campaign to abolish the disparity between penalties for powder and crack cocaine. Attorney General Holder called it "simply wrong" in a speech in Memphis last month. In April, Ricardo H. Hinojosa, the Sentencing Commission's acting chair, said there is "no justification for the current statutory penalty scheme" for cocaine, a position the commission first took in 1995. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress now agree that crack sentencing rules need to be fixed; and this may be the year that Congress finally heeds the commission. A bill creating parity between crack and powder cleared a House subcommittee last week, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to release a bipartisan parity bill after the August recess.
The issue of retroactivity, though, is anyone's guess. It would require an act of Congress to apply the crack-powder parity to mandatory minimums retroactively. The House bill is silent on that issue, and the Senate bill is expected to be as well. That would mean another fight from advocates for a retroactivity amendment. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based reform group, asks: "If we've been doing something that's unfair for 23 years now, don't we have an obligation to address that unfairness?"