How Fair is the Fair Sentencing Act? Implications of Dorsey v. United States

In the 1980’s the inner cities of America experienced what many are taught as the “crack epidemic”. During this time – the nation responded with fear – not knowing what crack was – or that it was literally was cocaine but in a different form. Many stigma’s started to surround the use of crack cocaine, and as the epidemic got larger – the government responded with the ‘War on Drugs’. This has become a very controversial area of discussion. A lot of critics of the war on drugs believe that this government response was targeted towards minorities while the supporters claim it reduced crime. The “War on Drugs” was pushed under the Reagan Administration where many pieces of legislature were pushed through Congress to create zero-tolerance policies regarding drug usage/possession.  The most controversial laws passed during this time was the mandatory sentencing laws in regards to crack-cocaine usage. If you were caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine – even if you were a non-violent, first-time offender, you were automatically given a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years…compared to having 500 grams of cocaine which would trigger a 5 year sentence..

crime-and-prison-crack-cocaine

These new laws created a disparity in sentencing. Nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Thousands of people were sent to jail – with mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years+ for having a small amount of crack cocaine although it turned out crack cocaine was the same drug as cocaine. 79% of 5,669 crack cocaine offenders in 2009 were African American. There was an obvious disparity in how the sentencing was directly impacting the African American population. Many people discussed the disparity and it became a very controversial topic since these laws where unfair compared to cocaine sentences which did not impact African Americans in the same sense – although they were technically the same drug.

This video discusses the impact of unfair sentencing laws: Drug Policy Alliance Video

Recently, these unfair sentencing laws were addressed by the same people who created them – Congress. In 2009, Senator Richard Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act to Congress. The goal of this legislation was to reverse the unfair sentencing laws that affected thousands by reducing the disparity in sentencing from a 100:1 to 18:1 ratio and ended mandatory minimum sentencing in certain situations. This legislature was considered bipartisan and passed through Congress quickly and became law on August 3rd, 2010. Although this legislature, in my opinion was a move in the right direction, there was a gap in the law and confusion of who it applied to. There was a population of people who committed drug offenses prior to the Fair Sentencing Act but were not sentenced until after it’s passage. It was unsure if this legislation applied to their sentencing since it was not specified in the law itself. Due to this, the Supreme Court case Dorsey v. United States unfolded….

In 2008, Edward Dorsey was convicted on selling 5.5 grams of crack cocaine. As a prior offender, his minimum sentence under prior laws would be 10 years. Although the crime happened in 2008, Edward did not receive his sentence until after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. The judge on his case determined that since the crime happened prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act that his sentencing would be determined by prior laws which meant he would get a minimum sentence of 10 years. Edward challenged this sentence which ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dorsey in a 5-4 decision. The majority court’s opinion was the intention of the Fair Sentencing Act was to restore fairness in sentencing and the only way to do this was to right-the-wrongs of past offenders. They believed this legislation applied to Pre-Act offenders which would change the sentences of thousands across America. If lower courts followed prior laws – they would continue to create disparities that Congress clearly intended to reduce and eventually end. Due to this, the court ruled in favor of Dorsey to make sure the disparities in sentencing would eventually end. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented followed by the other 3 justices writing that Congress did not imply that this law would specifically apply to offenders prior to the implementation of the new law and due to this – they wanted to follow standard protocal which states that the repeal of any statue does not imply that previous people affected by those laws will automatically get the benefits from a new law unless it is specified by Congress.

So what are the implications for social workers and why should we care?

Going back to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, under this new law, the ratio for sentencing comparing crack cocaine to cocaine went from 100:1 to 18:1 which means the disparity between the substances is NOT OVER. Thinking about how the substances are the same chemical – it is disturbing to think that crack cocaine still activates sentencing for having lower amounts compared to powder cocaine. It is a social justice issue, which is a core value in the social work profession. Crack cocaine offenders are more likely to be African American which means even though we made progress, these laws are still directly impacting the African American population. If we want to fulfill full equality, drug possession sentencing should be the same for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. This was a step in the right direction. Many people will have a chance to get re-sentenced and future generations will not face the same crucial penalties as they did in the past. It is important to recognize that there is still room for improvement and although we have advanced in our laws, social workers should still advocate on behalf of people affected by drug sentencing, in general. It is also important to note that this legislation was mainly directed towards the crack cocaine disparity. There are still many other laws implemented, that need to be revisited and probably rewritten to address the growing prison population in America.

Attached are additional information/resources regarding this topic:

History of War on Drugs

Dorsey v United States

Disparity in Crack Sentencing

Fair Sentencing Act

 

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Is the Travel Ban unconstitutional?

Most of the American population is aware of what happened on January 27th, 2017. The Trump administration made a bold move banning 7 countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) from traveling to the United States for ‘security’ purposes. This was followed by mass protests across the United States at international airports. The people responded with anger at the administration since refugees, friends and family members were being held at airports and told they were no longer granted access after they went through the process of getting to the United States.  Travel Ban Protests

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This obviously was not the end. In less then 24 hours, this ban became one of the most controversial actions of the Trump administration. Many people throughout our country stated this ban was not only discriminatory but also unconstitutional. Thanks to the checks and balances system of our government, the Judiciary branch immediately challenged the President. Many courts across America blocked sections of the travel ban – their reasoning? Unconstitutional. Many people agreed that banning people violates their Due Process and Equal Protections within the Constitution.

This ban seemed like a rush action that was done for publicity within the President’s first 100 days – which typically is focused upon by the media to see if the President follows through with certain campaign trail promises. Throughout Trumps campaign, he constantly dehumanized the entire population of Muslims and pushed them into one stigmatizing category – terrorists. In Trump’s perception – this ban was going to protect citizens from terrorism but did not think of the consequences that would come out of it. Many innocent people were barred from the United States, even some of our fellow classmates and workers who hold legal green cards. This document lumped an entire population and claimed they were all potentially dangerous. Using this wording is extremely dangerous because it puts a stigma onto an entire group of people who are attempting to make an honest living. British-muslim

As I stated earlier, the judiciary branch began to intervene. After making it’s way through many courts on February 16th, Donald Trump promised to change certain parts of the travel ban in accordance to federal court decisions. On March 6th, the new travel ban was announced. This new list excluded Iraq from the original countries banned but continued to ban refugees and foreign nationals from entering the United States. This is where it escalated really quickly…

US District Court Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii agreed to hear a case against the travel ban, and in the meantime BANNED the ban from being implemented until the case was resolved. The Supreme Court eventually took over this case and on June 26th they ruled that some aspects of the ban could go into affect until they could hear the case. People who were still allowed into the United States from these countries during this time are required to have a visa or a bona-fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States. This ban does not even allow you into the United States if you are a grandparent. The Supreme Court is not hearing the case until the fall term though, so the ban might be over before the justices are even given a chance to decide.

So what does this mean for social workers? This ban is dehumanizing. Even the title of the executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” is giving the people the idea that Muslim = terrorist. It is giving everyone a false perception of people who are themselves trying to escape war. They are attempting to make their lives better and get the basic needs to live which is a human right. We are  ignoring a humanitarian crisis, and barring people for no legitimate reason. The United States has not experienced a terrorist attack from these foreign nations in 40 years! Most recent terrorism in our country has been caused by our own citizens – which would not have been prevented by this ban if it was in place during those attacks. As social workers, we will be working with and for vulnerable people. This is a very, very scary time for Muslims in this nation as their morality is being questioned by the government. If anything, Muslims in this country have a right to fear for themselves more then we have a right to fear of them. It is social workers responsibility to stand up for social justice. It is an injustice that Muslims are not given the free religious liberties that every other citizen has a right over. The government constantly is discriminating against them based on their religion – which this ban entails. Another value of our profession is competence, and not only for ourselves but spreading knowledge to others. As a profession, we should stand up and fight when we see injustice and hate. Hate crimes are on the rise as we can see in this report: Hate Crimes Against Muslims, which shows the reality of their life. It’s time to work together as a population to realize their is no direct threat in an entire race, ethnicity or religion. It is INDIVIDUALS who decide to spread hate. It is our job to make sure that we are protecting the human rights and religious rights of groups that do not define themselves or their moralities with those individuals.

Highly recommend watching: Travel Ban Explained

For more information on this subject, visit the following links:

Timeline of Travel Ban

CNN: Supreme Court allows part of travel ban to take effect

Supreme Court Document on Travel Ban

 

 

Affirmative Action is necessary and Fisher v. University of Texas proved why

On June 23rd, 2016 the Supreme Court of The United States literally threw out Abigail Fisher’s a young Caucasian woman’s argument that she was rejected from the University of Texas due to her race and ethnicity under affirmative action.

Now, before we get into the this subject. We need an understanding of what affirmative action is. A common misconception of affirmative action is that “it makes it easier for minority students to get into college programs compared to their white-counterparts’. Being a student of color, I have heard this argument multiple times. Affirmative action is not a policy that states “you must x amount of students of each ethnicity” it is a well-designed process that attempts to close the racial-gap that still exists in America until this day. The process first involves reaching out to underrepresented groups at schools in attempts to get them to apply, and once accepted-offering financial assistance and educational assistance such as (EOF-educational opportunity fund) in order to increase educational success. The whole point of the policy is to endorse diversity in the student body since many minorities have been underrepresented in higher education until affirmative action was put in place. Diversity is an important aspect of any educational institution especially since the population of America in generally is a melting-pot.

Here’s a short video to explain affirmative action more: Affirmative Action

Why do we need this policy? America has a long history of racial, social and economic oppression. Due to this, students of lower socioeconomic status have less resources to receive higher education. And who falls under these brackets? Typically minorities. Now this does not automatically “discriminate” against Caucasians since anyone can qualify for need-based assistance (such as EOF) when attaining higher education – affirmative action is just an extra step that attempts to close the gap and allow minorities to be able to have the same opportunities as well. Having this policy in place ensures social equity which is defined as having equal access to social goods and services. Equality is good but it does not take into account all of the years of oppression many minorities have faced in this country, having programs that ensure equity do.

weaving-social-equity-into-the-urban-planning-process-8-638

Arguments against affirmative action: Of course policies such as these are going to be faced with some critics. People who are against affirmative action typically do not understand what it is all about. Arguments tend to have similar themes that affirmative action promotes discrimination when in-fact the whole point of the policy is to prevent discriminatory practices from happening. In the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas, Abigail Fisher laid out a story of how she was victimized by this system. She claimed that this policy discriminated against her and ultimately led to her denial from the university. Fisher claimed that the policy was in violation of the Fourteenth admendment along with the Equal Protection Clause. This is not the first time a case like this has worked it’s way up the courts. There has been other cases that fought against the ‘quotas’ in affirmative action which was proven to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has agreed multiple times though that affirmative action is constitutional as long as it does NOT have quotas, promotes diversity in education and the workplace AND that it’s use is limited. In the case of Fischer v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court Justices ruled 4-3 agaisnt Fisher. Their explanation? The justices explained that educational diversity is important and school’s may have such policies – as long as it is not a quota – to build a diverse body of students that has a concrete and precise goal focused on diversity.

Why is this important to social workers? One of social workers main values in our Code of Ethics is social justice. It is part of our responsibility to fight against policies that further oppress vulnerable individuals. Making sure that affirmative action is protected in the future is something all social workers should fight for. Having this policy in place assists students of disadvantage backgrounds get higher education – many of which we will come across in our work. Making sure our clients have equal access to resources such as education is an important right that every person in the United States should have as an opportunity. It is up to us – and other professions – to make sure that it continues.

For more information on affirmative action and Fisher v The University of Texas please see the following links:

CNN Supreme Court decision

Fisher v University of Texas

Fast Facts on Affirmative Action

Supreme Court Decision

ACLU – Who Supports Affirmative Action