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Thousands Are Victimized by the Mandatory Harsh Sentencing for Crack -- Will They Get Justice?

Over 12,000 prisoners serving harsh sentences for crack cocaine possession and distribution may have their sentences reduced.

Over 12,000 prisoners serving harsh sentences for crack cocaine possession and distribution may have their sentences reduced. Previously, people convicted for crack--overwhelmingly black--were given sentences 100 times greater than those convicted of possessing the same quantity of powder cocaine, two pharmacologically identical drugs. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Barack Obama in August 2010, the ratio fell to 18:1. The United States Sentencing Commission will soon decide whether to make the law retroactive.

“It takes 50 grams of crack [to get a mandatory ten years], versus 500 keys of cocaine,” says Lawrence Garrison of Washington D.C. He was released two years ago after a 2007 Commission decision to make a smaller sentencing reduction retroactive, along with 2,788 other prisoners. “And that’s a lot of cocaine.”

Garrison, who served 11 years and 5 months, still has a twin brother behind bars. Lawrence and Lamont Garrison still maintain their innocence of charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine.

The vast sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has wreaked disproportionate havoc on African-Americans. Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, judges were required to impose harsh mandatory minimums minimum sentences, and the Commission established a range of extended sentences in cases where there was an aggravating factor, like a weapon or prior conviction. Someone convicted of possessing just five grams of crack (cocaine processed into a smokable rock crystal) would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of five to 40 years in prison--the same for someone convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine. 50 grams or more of crack would trigger a minimum sentence of 10 years to life, compared to 5,000 grams or more of powder cocaine.

Five grams of crack is about 25 doses, the amount the lowest-level street dealer might carry in his pocket. And ironically, since most cocaine is trafficked in powder form before being processed into crack, larger drug dealers were far less likely to be get hit with the harsh mandatory minimums for crack.

Under the new law, there is no mandatory minimum for less than 28 grams of crack. But 28 grams or more will still trigger a five to forty-year sentence, and over 28 grams 10 years to life.

If the Commission rules that the guidelines should be applied retroactively, 12,040 prisoners--85 percent of whom are black and 96 percent of whom are male--could petition for a reduction. The Commission estimates that the average eligible prisoner would receive a reduction of 37 months, from 164 to 127 months. 280 prisoners, however, would receive a reduction of over ten years. And while a little over a third of the prisoners would likely be released within a year, slightly less than a third would still face at least 5 more years behind bars.

On June 1, the Sentencing Commission will hold a hearing to determine whether to make the amended guidelines effective retroactively. The online civil rights group Color of Change has initiated an email campaign, where supporters can contact the Sentencing Commission in favor of the proposal.


The Garrison twins were arrested in April 1998. Karen Garrison, their mother, says that more than a dozen police arrived at 5:30 am, throwing her to the floor of her bedroom and handcuffing her sons, both of whom were a month away from graduating Howard University.

“The only record they had was a school record,” says Karen. “They went to school every day.”

The police moved through the house, and searched everything.

“It looked like something off of cable TV,” she tells me, her voice still betraying amazement 13 years later.

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