South Carolina has enacted a new law overhauling the state’s drug sentencing policy, eliminating sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine and removing mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders.
The state’s lawmakers passed the legislation last week by a wide margin in an effort to curtail South Carolina’s increasing prison population and reduce its billion-dollar budget shortfall. Supporters say the measure will save South Carolina taxpayers more than $400 million over the next four years.
The law is designed to reduce the number of non-violent, first-time offenders incarcerated. “Unless we’re going to build a bunch more jails, we’ve got to look at alternatives,” Gov. Mark Sanford said before signing the bill. “This bill does that.”
With the passage of the new measure, South Carolina joins a majority of states that draw no distinctions in sentencing between the two forms of the drug. In other states, regulations vary widely, with some enforcing sentencing guidelines that set the crack cocaine/powder cocaine disparity as high as 75-1 (in Missouri) and others as low as 2-1 (in Virginia).
Forty states have mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses involving powder or crack cocaine, and before the new law was passed, possession of less than a gram of crack cocaine in South Carolina carried a mandatory maximum of five years in prison, while the same weight of powder triggered only a two-year sentence.
At the federal level, there is currently a 100-1 disparity in sentencing between the two forms of the drug. Defendants convicted for possessing just five grams of crack cocaine – less than the weight of two sugar packet – are subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Yet, a defendant selling powder cocaine has to be caught selling 100 times as much, or 500 grams, to get the same sentence.
Civil rights groups have long supported eliminating mandatory minimums because of their disproportionate effect on racial minorities. Pending in Congress now is a bill that will eliminate mandatory minimums from federal cocaine sentences for simple possession and reduce the disparity from 100-1 to 18-1.