Change in drug sentencing helps out Maryland inmates

Back in 1980’s, a basketball star for the University of Maryland died of a crack overdose. Sources suspect that that high-profile death of a promising young athlete prompted a large movement regarding drug laws and sentencing. That movement, however, has supposedly met its end.

The Baltimore Sun reports that lawmakers decided last year to change the excessively harsh sentencing laws in crack cocaine cases. The change would work retroactively as well, meaning that some inmates would get out of prison before they originally thought. Of course, with any legal change, especially related to drug laws, there are concerns.

The previous sentencing guideline for drug crimes involving crack meant that a person who was caught with one gram of crack would be sentenced to the same amount of prison time as a person found with 100 grams of powder cocaine. That 100:1 ratio has been changed to 18:1, a change that some critics of the war on drugs believe is still not enough.

A primary motivation behind the change in crack cocaine sentencing is that history shows that the law has essentially put low-income, minority offenders in jail. The Baltimore Sun reports that 85 percent of those sentenced under the 100:1 guideline were African-Americans.

Within Maryland an estimated 900 cases are under review because of the sentencing change. So far, 24 inmates have been recommended for early release, with 24 more likely to be released by the year’s end. Talk about a happy New Year.

Still, the critics of this sentencing change worry. They highlight that many of the inmates eligible for release were only convicted of drug crimes when they were also responsible for violent crimes. Because the sentencing for crack-related crimes was so harsh, prosecutors didn’t feel the need to seek violent crime convictions.

Only the future will tell what this change in sentencing will mean for the inmates who are released early and for the communities where they wind up. Some have served as much as 10 years already and have changed their lives while incarcerated. But there is always the nagging of the critics, warning us that reoffending is right around the corner.

We will follow this matter and post updates when there are further developments.


The Baltimore Sun: “In Md., revised crack law sets some convicts free,” Justin Fenton, Nov. 28, 2011

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