Friday, December 20, 2013

Mitch Perry Report 12.20.13: Ezell Gilbert & the misery of mandatory minimum sentences

Posted by on Fri, Dec 20, 2013 at 8:22 AM

Previously known as a rich man's drug, cocaine use became much more prevalent if not downright ubiquitous in the late 1970's and early 80's in America.

And then the crack cocaine scene developed, and it became a much more devastating drug because of its cheaper value. All of a sudden lower income people, many black, got turned on and addicted to the drug. Soon Congress came in to deal with the problem, and began imposing mandatory minimum sentences for using and selling crack.

A lot of people went to jail for far too long a time for their offense, but judges hands were tied thanks to the federal legislation, which made the penalties far harsher for those caught with crack than traditional coke. Coincidentally or not, the fact was that many more blacks smoked crack than whites, who continued to use and abuse the substance the old fashion way by snorting it.

But in 2010 Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which significantly reduced the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, and Attorney General Eric Holder this August announced further changes to sentencing guidelines, allowing judges the freedom to determine whether or not a defendant should serve the mandatory minimum sentence given their connection to larger-scale drug organization. The new guidelines are to be applied as long as the defendant is a non-violent, low-level offender with no connection to a drug cartel or gang.

Yesterday President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison. One of those men was Tampa resident Ezell Gilbert, who was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison back in 1997 for selling crack and marijuana in a high-crime area in Tampa. He was scheduled to serve four more years before being eligible for release. You can read his case in a story written by Elaine Silvestrini in today's Tampa Tribune.

In a statement, Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system." Even Ed Meese, George Schultz and other members of Ronald Reagan's administration when these laws were imposed now agree on that.

In other news, it's a cliche that things are getting nastier in the David Jolly-Kathleen Peters GOP race for the CD 13 congressional seat, but they did get spicier yesterday. Apparently the whole idea at this point is to point out who is the purest in terms of their utter disdain for Obamacare.

My annual listing of my favorites in movies, books and music is now out.

And in our books issue in the current CL, I speak with New York Times Magazine's chief political correspondent, Mark Leibovich, about his 2013 best-seller This Town.

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