In 25 years on the bench, former Judge Pamela Alexander of Minneapolis’ Hennepin County received her share of death threats. The Minneapolis Star Tribune says that none came as quickly as the day in 1991 when she ruled that it was racially biased and unfair to order different sentences for possessing crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. Nearly two decades after her controversial ruling, Congress finally followed Alexander’s lead this week and narrowed the sentencing disparities between those caught with crack and powder cocaine.
A key part of the new law repeals the mandatory minimum five-year sentence for first-time crack possession. Congress hadn’t repealed a mandatory minimum sentence since the Nixon administration. The new law won’t apply retroactively so it won’t affect thousands in prison today on drug charges. Roughly 80 percent of those behind bars for crack convictions are black. Alexander is feeling bittersweet about the new law. “It’s significant, but I feel kind of sad for all those young people in that 20-year time frame who have gone to prison for 10 or 15 years when they might have gotten less time or treatment and could have been contributing members of the community,” said Alexander, 57, who directs the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice.