This week saw two significant steps in removing what has been for two decades the most glaring example of racism in America's pursuit of mass imprisonment. In 1986 Congress passed a law instructing the US Sentencing Commission to create a guideline for sentencing crack traffickers that treated possession of a given weight of crack as the equivalent of possessing 100 times as much powder cocaine. Often mis-stated as requiring 100 times more punishment, the 100 to 1 rule meant crack traffickers faced sentences 5 or 6 times as long as traffickers in powder cocaine.
On Monday of this week the Supreme Court held that a District Judge who chose explicitly to reject the 100 to 1 weight guideline was not unreasonable (read the decision in Kimbrough v. US). On Tuesday, the US Sentencing Commission, which had recently reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, decided to extend that relief retroactively to inmates already serving federal sentences if a judge determines in an individualize review that a reduced sentence would not endanger public safety. (read the Commission's statement)
These steps are good but modest. Keep in mind that the new policies will produce only modest reductions in prison sentences, and then only when individual federal judges agree. Moreover, given the fact that a crime policy that was highly problematic from the start, took more than 20 years to correct, does not bode well for all the other bad crime policies we made after 1986!