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.
"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."
Lawrence was released early from prison in Elkton, Ohio, after a 2007 amendment to sentencing guidelines reduced penalties for crack cocaine offenses, shaving 4.5 years off his sentence. It also reduced Lamont's sentence by three years, but that one was about four years longer in the first place, based on additional charges of obstructing justice because Lamont testified in his own defense.
The Garrisons were a textbook case for advocates fighting to overturn the sentencing guidelines, which resulted from crack-cocaine turf wars that dominated headlines and whose death tolls propelled lawmakers to exact harsh punishment on dealers. Crack cocaine was thought to be so dangerous about 30 years ago that mothers were said to be delivering babies addicted to crack cocaine, and people were walking through the streets zombielike in search of the next high. And then Len Bias, a Maryland basketball star who was headed for the NBA, was out partying and died of a crack-cocaine overdose.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington office and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, who was actively involved in overturning the guidelines, recalled Bias' death and the political atmosphere at the time of the passage of the sentencing guidelines.
"Len Bias' death jacked up the sentencing just before the decision on the guidelines for crack cocaine," Shelton said in an interview with The Root. "It turns out he hadn't even used crack. It was powder. But the misassumption that he used crack cocaine, along with everything else, made politicians decide even more needed to be done."
Then along came the Garrison twins, who were working their way through college at an auto-body shop when the owner, a drug dealer, was arrested, according to the Web site for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He reportedly implicated the twins and several others in a major drug ring to reduce his sentence. Even though police did not uncover drugs or paraphernalia on either of the brothers or in their home, they received harsh mandatory minimum crack-cocaine sentences, Lawrence told The Root. The twins reportedly said they had weak court-appointed lawyers, who fell asleep during the trial and bungled the investigative and discovery processes.
"It's sad that these draconian laws have haunted people of color for years," Lawrence said. "But lots of organizations worked hard over the last several decades to get to this point. I believe that there is nothing but good feelings on both sides. I'm looking forwarding to helping my brother and others as well."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.