For decades, when it came to cocaine, the federal government operated on stark prejudices, says Pacific Standard magazine. In 1986 and 1988, Congress passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an attempt to address a rise in cocaine usage in cities. As political scientist Michael Coyne explains, the legislation was borne out of the premise that crack cocaine was 50 times more addictive than powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 brought the crack-to-powder cocaine penalty ratio from 100:1 down to 18:1, and eliminated the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine. This week, on the law's five-year anniversary, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a report assessing its impact.
The study said there were only about half as many prosecutions for crack cocaine offenses in 2014, compared with 2010. The crack cocaine sentences in 2014 were much closer to powder cocaine sentences, and, the commission says, that helped reduce the overall federal prison population. “Average crack cocaine sentences are decreasing and as a result are becoming more similar to average powder cocaine sentences, which have stayed relatively stable over time,” the commission said. While crack cocaine users and dealers continue to be prosecuted, there are fewer people starting to use the drug; one recent study finds the number of people starting to smoke crack each day at only about one-fifth the number of people who started it each day about 10 years ago. Another found that reductions in the purity of cocaine available in Chicago over several years led to a drop in emergency room visits. The commission estimates that the legislative change shaved an average of 35 months off of the sentences of almost 6,000 drug offenders, and retroactively reduced the sentences of almost 7,000 more.