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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.

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And in the 2007 case U.S Booker v., the Supreme Court pushed back against strict federal sentencing guidelines, restoring judge’s power to choose more lenient sentences.

The courts that convicted the Garrison twins, however, had no problem abiding by the harsh guidelines.

The Eastern District of Virginia accounts for a full 7.3 percent of the crack convictions that could be eligible for relief, and the 4th Circuit of which it is part--and which denied the twins' appeal--a staggering 25.7 percent .The Fourth Circuit was notoriously right wing before recent Obama appointees took their seats, handing down decisions supporting the Bush Administration’s detainee policies and striking down a law allowing rape victims to sue their assailants in federal court. In 1999, they even voted to overturn the requirement that police read suspects their Miranda rights--a requirement the Supreme Court later upheld. 

“Virginia was the worst circuit,” says Karen Garrison. “They called it the ‘rocket docket.’”

Harsh and uneven mandatory minimums, and the Drug War in general, have fueled the mass incarceration of black American males in both state and federal prisons. In 2009, there were 208,118 people locked up in federal prisons, nearly half of them drug offenders. The number of state inmates grew 708 percent between 1972 and 2008, according to the Pew Center on the States, before declining slightly in 2009 to 1,404,503.

“Most of the people who were in prison were just like my brother and I,” says Lawrence. “First time offenders, mainly non-violent. But their sentences were very, very disproportionate to the crime: first time offenders serving 15 to 20 years. That was the norm. And unfortunately, they were African-Americans...We’re the minority in this country, but we’re the majority in prison.”

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia.

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