A Layman’s Analysis of the First Step Act and Historical Crack Cocaine Incarceration Data

“The [First Step Act] was the culmination of a bi-partisan effort to improve criminal justice outcomes, as well as to reduce the size of the federal prison population while also creating mechanisms to maintain public safety.” — Federal Bureau of Prisons https://www.bop.gov/inmates/fsa/overview.jsp

“This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African American community” — 2019 State of the Union Address

  • 2,387 cases, dating back to 1990, have been granted a reduction of sentence because of the First Step Act.
  • 2,172 of the 2,387 (90.99%) reduction of sentence were granted to incarcerated Black Americans.
  • Drug-related incarceration data
  • Timeline and history leading to First Step Act
  • Effect and Implementation of First Step Act on incarceration rate and numbers of Black Americans

Drug-related Incarceration Data

Figure 1. Comparison of Drug Offenders by Race 1996–2019. Raw data manually compiled can be found at https://gist.github.com/hanselong/cfde7f92ccbf03ac6aedd0989bdf7635
  • Comparable numbers between Black and White Americans incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
  • Downward trend of drug-related incarcerations for Black Americans from 2008–2016 (The “Obama years”).
Figure 2. Comparison of “Powder Cocaine” Offenders by Race 1996–2019. Raw data manually compiled can be found at https://gist.github.com/hanselong/258c9fa223bd3beeb8240699112606ee
  • Between 15% to 20% of powder cocaine offenders were White Americans from 1996 to 2012. This suddenly sharply dropped to ~10% and then to ~6% more recently.
  • Between 24% to 32% of powder cocaine offenders were Black Americans from 1996 to 2016.
Figure 3. Comparison of “Crack Cocaine” Offenders by Race 1996–2019. Raw data manually compiled can be found at https://gist.github.com/hanselong/1e03cbdd56bc5170de1b8f8b69089063
  • Between 4% to 10% of crack cocaine offenders were White Americans from 1996 to 2012.
  • Between 78% to 86% of crack cocaine offenders were Black Americans from 1996 to 2012.
  • Sharp downward trend in number of Black American crack cocaine offenders from 2008 to present.
  • Why is there such a large percentage of Black Americans incarcerated for crack cocaine offenders in particular?
  • What happened in 2008 to drastically reduce the number of Black Americans incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses?

Timeline and history leading to First Step Act

First Step Act of 2018

  • Introduced and sponsored by Rep. Douglas Collins [R-GA-9]on May 7, 2018.
  • Democratic senators rejected the initial version of the First Step Act because, among other things, it lacked the retroactive crack cocaine sentence reduction that Democrats have been trying to pass since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that was signed into law by President Obama (See e.g. Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act 2015 and 2017).
  • The inclusion of the retroactive crack cocaine sentence reduction into the final form of the First Step Act is directly responsible for the ~91% reduction of sentence granted to 2,172 incarcerated Black Americans.
  • Conclusion: While Republicans were the first to introduce and sponsor the First Step Act, it was Democrats who fought for reduced sentence of thousands of Black Americans to be included in the First Step Act of 2018
  • The First Step Act is dubbed “Kushner’s Reform Bill” by the Washington Examiner (widely regarded as conservative media). Wikipedia elaborated on this a bit more (but hey it’s Wikipedia so who knows if it’s accurate?):

Fair Sentencing Act of 2010

  • The 1995 Report to the Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy written by the U.S. Sentencing Commission stated: “Federal sentencing data leads to the inescapable conclusion that Blacks comprise the largest percentage of those affected by the penalties associated with crack cocaine” and called out the racial disparity nature of the mandatory minimum penalties enacted in 1986 and 1988 for sentencing federal cocaine offenses as such:
Table 1. Comparison of amount of Crack vs. Powder Cocaine needed to trigger mandatory minimum penalty for drug-related imprisonment — enacted by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 (Reagan’s Republican administration).

“Under the 1986 Act, a person caught holding a few small bags of crack rocks, even if for her own use, faced the same penalty as a major powder cocaine carrier.” — https://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/crack-vrs-powder-cocaine-one-drug-two-penalties.htm

  • The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 signed into federal law by President Obama on August 3, 2010 revised the sentencing guidelines for federal cocaine offenses to be *slightly* less disparate:
Table 2. Comparison of amount of Crack vs. Powder Cocaine needed to trigger mandatory minimum penalty for drug-related imprisonment — remedied by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Obama’s Democratic administration).
  • Fairness in Drug Sentencing Act of 2007, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), proposing to set the 5-year mandatory minimum penalty to 25 grams for crack cocaine.
  • Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, Joe Biden (D-DE), proposing to abolish the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing altogether (based on a 2007 U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation that the disparity should be rescinded).

Effect and Implementation of First Step Act on incarceration rate and numbers of Black Americans

Conclusion

  • Democrats, not Republicans, have fought and continues to fight for the good of Black Americans.
  • The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 signed into law by Obama has resulted in thousands of fewer incarceration of Black People in the past 10 years, which arguably is better than the retroactive reduction of sentence for Black Americans under the First Step Act

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