The Washington Post Magazine profiles Michael Short, one of he many who served long federal prison terms for selling crack cocaine. Short testified this year to Congress that before that offense, “I had never spent a day in prison. I came from a good family. I had no criminal history. I was not a violent offender. But I was sentenced to serve nearly 20 years. I was 21 years old.” He ended up behind bars for more than 15 years. Short told lawmakers: “I made a mistake. And it didn’t take me 15 years to understand that what I did was wrong. I deserved to go to prison. But I don’t feel as though I deserved to go to prison for 15 years.”
Short was sentenced under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Over the next two decades, the federal prison population would grow from about 38,000 to more than 200,000; more than half the current inmates are drug offenders. The average amount of crack that federal offenders were convicted of trafficking in 2006 was 51 grams, about the weight of a candy bar; their average prison sentence was 10 years, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Rep. Bobby Scott (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, has proposed to close the crack-powder sentencing disparity. “There is certainly no sound basis for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of five grams of crack, when you could get probation for possessing a ton of powder,” Scott said.