In the coming months the first trickle of convicted federal crack cocaine dealers is expected to head home from prison–months, if not years, earlier than expected–a result of recent changes in the sentencing guidelines that will retroactively lower the punishment for most defendants convicted of peddling the drug. U.S. News & World Report says that no place will feel the impact of the changes more than the Eastern District of Virginia, which has 7 percent–1,404 cases–of the nation’s 19,500 individuals impacted by the new guidelines. That is nearly double the amount in the next highest areas, the middle district of Florida and the district of South Carolina.
How this stretch of Virginia came to host more most federal crack cocaine cases than any other place has little to do with the prevalence of drug trafficking. The disproportionate share of affected individuals is an example of how the politics of criminal justice is local. Frustrated that local prosecutors treated crack as only misdemeanors, the U.S. Attorney began working with local law enforcement to prosecute on the federal level, where mandatory minimum sentences make prison time much longer. The 1986 federal law kicked in the mandatory five- and 10-year minimum sentences at a rate 100 times greater for crack cocaine than for the powder variety. In 1997, the U.S. Attorney cracked down on illegal guns. Through Project Exile, local law enforcement transferred cases involving illegal gun possession–particularly by felons–from state court to the federal level, where the individuals face a stiffer a five-year mandatory minimum jail time. The effects bled into drug cases because many of the people caught with guns were also charged with crack cocaine dealing.