Politics & Policy

The First Step Act Resulted in 1,151 Crack Sentence Reductions, and That’s Great

President Trump with Alice Johnson, former prisoner and FIRST STEP Act beneficiary, during the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and FIRST STEP Act Celebration at the White House, April 1, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Progress is always something worth celebrating, even if there’s only a little of it.

The First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law in December 2018, included a provision that retroactively applied the reductions in penalties for crack cocaine offenses that Congress had passed in 2010.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that more than 1,000 federal prisoners have benefited from this part of the law, with the average sentencing reduction being about 30 percent.

Now, as a libertarian, I have to admit that I really wish that the law had gone a lot further. In my view, no one should be in prison for their decision to use crack cocaine or any drug. This country is, after all, supposed to be built on a foundation of individual rights and liberty, and locking people up for what they choose to put into their own bodies quite obviously counters those values. Still, though, this is a great initial (pun not intended, don’t judge me) step, and one for which both Congress and President Trump certainly deserve credit.

According to a column in Reason, the past severity of penalties for smokable cocaine compared to snortable cocaine dates back to “panic about the ‘crack epidemic’” in 1986. That year, Congress instituted mandatory minimum sentences for crack that were 100 times harsher than those for powdered cocaine. For example: A person who was caught with five grams or more of crack cocaine (as little as ten doses) would be forced to serve a minimum of five years in prison, while a person caught with powdered cocaine would not face that same minimum penalty unless they had 500 grams or more (thousands of doses.)

It was a stupid, unfair distinction — and one that had a seriously disparate impact on the black community. Crack users, as Reason notes, were usually black, while powdered cocaine users were usually Hispanic or white. The law (which seems to be based more on stigma than on any kind of real scientific difference) was resulting in longer losses of freedom for black Americans than for white and Hispanic people who were doing essentially the same thing.

Fortunately, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 recognized and minimized this injustice, reducing the 100-to-1 ratio to an 18-to-1 ratio. This was still, in my opinion, an unfair distinction — crack, after all, is basically just smokable coke — and it also did not apply retroactively, meaning that people who had been convicted previously were still forced to serve their original sentences.

That’s where the First Step Act comes in. Thanks to this law, 1,051 crack offenders (more than 90 percent of whom are black) have seen sentence reductions, with the average reduction being from 20 to 14 years. To me, this is still pretty bad. Using crack does not impede anyone else’s rights, and for that reason, I believe that it shouldn’t be punishable at all, let alone punishable by more than a decade in federal prison. There is no reason to continue to separate people from their families and their freedom for making a decision that, although certainly not advisable, they should have the right to make for themselves.

In any case, though, progress is always something worth celebrating, even if there’s only a little of it. Although I’d like to see our drug laws move much further away from the oppressively punitive ones we have now, at least we are moving in the right direction. It’s up to us to make sure that this trend continues — for the sake of our fellow Americans who are suffering greatly under the cruelty that is the status quo.