Crime rates are at 40-year lows thanks in part to tough sentences, including for crack cocaine offenses. Sentencing should remain tough to preserve these gains, safeguard public safety and reduce crime. That is common sense. Those with alternate options should review history.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the United States Sentencing Commission in 2011 that “sentencing policies must be tough, predictable and aimed at enhancing public safety; reducing crime; reducing recidivism; eliminating unwarranted disparities; minimizing the negative, often devastating effects of illegal drugs; and inspiring trust and confidence in the fairness of our criminal justice system.” He spoke plainly, and he was right.
In the 1980s, crack cocaine hit American streets with a vengeance. Addicts, families, children and neighborhoods were devastated. This unprecedented threat called for an unprecedented response. Laws were passed that made punishment consistent with the severity of the drug’s impact on society.
Fast-forward to 2012. Statistics plainly show that tough treatment for crack and other drug offenses has worked. Violent crimes and drug use are down by more than 35 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Reversing course would be anathema to public safety.
Of course, sentencing is not the sole reason for improved crime statistics and reduced crack cocaine use, and there is room for continued improvement. The present budget crisis presents opportunities for improving coordination of criminal justice efforts across the federal government and among municipal, state and federal jurisdictions. Still, operational improvement must not be confused with policy reversals. A wide pool of evidence now shows that tough sentencing policies have worked.
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law, reducing the weight ratio between the amount of crack and powder cocaine that triggers mandatory minimum sentences from 100:1 to 18:1. This change may have been premature. Many in the field would argue that it contravened both narcotics-related science and empirical data indicating that the impact of crack use on local crime rates was enormous. Some in Congress who supported this new act previously had supported stiffer penalties and the higher ratio, because crack had devastated countless communities, and their constituents had demanded action. The sentences imposed earlier worked. The earlier ratio amounted to holding the line on tougher sentences, a dramatic response to a significant public safety concern.
The earlier approach was objectively sound. Crack cocaine users and traffickers have a higher rate of firearms use and recidivism than users and traffickers of other drugs. Crack users are often spurred to commit violent crimes. Tough sentencing takes offenders off the streets, preventing them from committing additional crimes.
Our goal must be to enhance public safety and keep individuals involved in selling crack cocaine off the streets. Lighter sentences for these offenders do not advance that goal. At the same time, our jails and prisons are woefully under-resourced for treating addicted inmates. Law enforcement and corrections officials asked for more effective solutions. Federal and state governments have to work harder to address what has become a systemic problem.
Of course, new approaches to crime and drug abuse deserve attention. While stiff sentences work, they should be complemented by regular review and innovation within our state and federal criminal justice systems.
Stronger sentencing policies have been associated with significant declines in crime rates over the past generation. Sentences imposed must continue to match the crimes committed. Trends are going in the right direction as the policies in place are making society safer. Yet safety is sustainable only if sentencing is — and remains — credible. That is just common sense.
Robert B. Charles, president of the Charles Group, was assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.