Will 'Fair Sentencing' Make a Dent in Black Incarceration?

President Obama recently signed a law that will reduce the disparity in mandatory minimum sentencing for crack- and powder-cocaine offenses. But as the contrasting treatment of two brothers demonstrates, there's no guarantee the new guidelines will help all offenders currently serving time.

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Crack cocaine (DEA)

Lawrence Garrison felt a tinge of hope last month when President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for mandatory minimum prison sentences.

The hope was not for him, you see. He is a free man, so to speak. The 37-year-old Howard University graduate was released from prison in January after serving 11 years of a 15.5-year prison sentence ordered in 1998 for conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine and crack.

Now his hope is for his twin brother, Lamont, who was sentenced in the same case and is not scheduled for release until Feb. 8, 2012. Lamont, who also graduated from Howard, is still serving the remainder of his 19.5-year sentence in Manchester, Ky., for conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine and crack.

Lamont has an uphill battle because the new law does not cover people sentenced before Nov. 1, 2010. However, thousands of people will benefit from shorter sentences under the Fair Sentencing Act, including scores who have already been convicted but aren't scheduled for sentencing until after the law takes effect.

For nearly 30 years, defendants charged with crack-cocaine offenses, mostly African-American and Hispanic men, have been given tougher sentences than those convicted of powder-cocaine offenses, usually white defendants, according to The Washington Post. A person caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine was subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. In a 100-to-1 disparity, those caught with crack cocaine were handed that same five-year sentence for carrying just 5 grams. A crack offender carrying 10 grams was given a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years; the same penalty would not be considered for a powder-cocaine defendant unless the suspect was caught with 1,000 grams.

The Fair Sentencing Act reduces the disparity to 18 to 1: Powder-cocaine offenders still face the five-year mandatory sentence for carrying 500 grams, but now a suspect would have to be convicted of selling 28 grams or more of crack to receive that five-year sentence. To receive a 10-year sentence, a defendant would have to be in possession of 280 grams or more of crack. African Americans make up 84 percent of all federal crack-cocaine convictions, according to a study by the NAACP, which worked for decades to overturn the guidelines.

The law also eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine (as opposed to possession with intent to distribute), according to criminal justice experts and advocates. While the kinks are still being worked out by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentences, polices and practices for the federal courts, the act is expected to affect the sentences of nearly 3,000 prisoners a year, says Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Open Society Policy Center, a nonpartisan advocacy group that also worked on changing the guidelines.

More than 80 percent of criminals sentenced to federal prison for cocaine offenses are African American, she says, citing federal prison statistics. She added that the federal government would save an estimated $42 million over the next five years if it housed fewer prisoners.

"But the struggle continues," Taifa told The Root. "There are thousands who are still incarcerated. The act is not retroactive, and there are questions about scores of cases in the pipeline. They have been tried but not sentenced. We have questions about whether the act will apply to them. The U.S. Sentencing Commission is still working all of this out." Advocates like Taifa are pushing to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, saying that there are a number of prisoners, like Lamont Garrison, who should be released.

For his part, Lawrence is happy about the change. He and his mother, Karen, have become vital advocates for those sentenced under the harsh guidelines. "It's a great start," he told The Root. "I'm really happy about it. I hope it will help my twin brother, who still languishes in prison. It's been a long time coming."