Legislative reforms can be an effective strategy for addressing DMC because they have enormous potential for producing broad-based change in every aspect of the system. During legislative sessions, it is important to monitor bills concerning juvenile justice issues and children and families to be sure they do not result in statutes that could fuel overrepresentation or bias justice officials’ decisionmaking or reporting (e.g., legal definition of a gang, mandatory juvenile sentencing guidelines, construction of secure facilities).
An Example of Laws That Increase Overrepresentation. The disparities in federal sentencing laws for crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession and trafficking illustrate how legislation can worsen DMC. Crack cocaine use became prevalent in the mid-1980s and received massive media coverage as a violence- inducing, highly addictive drug plague of inner cities. This media attention led to the quick passage of two federal sentencing laws concerning crack cocaine in 1986 and 1988. The laws created a 100:1 quantity ratio between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking and possession. For powder cocaine, a conviction of possessing 500 grams or more with intent to distribute carries a 5-year sentence. For crack cocaine, a conviction of possessing only 5 grams with intent to distribute carries a 5-year sentence. In addition, crack cocaine is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for first offense possession. A person convicted in federal court of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine automatically receives a 5-year prison term. A person convicted of possessing 5 grams of powder cocaine probably would receive a probation sentence. Under these laws, crack cocaine users and dealers receive much harsher penalties than users and dealers of powder cocaine. Moreover, most defendants convicted of using and dealing crack cocaine are African American. The result was a massive sentencing disparity by race, with African Americans receiving longer sentences than the mostly white and Hispanic powder cocaine offenders (The Sentencing Project, no date).
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