A Timeline of the Rise and Fall of 'Tough on Crime' Drug Sentencing

In an odd twist, deficit hawk Republicans are fighting with tough-on-crime Democrats to pass legislation for fairer, less aggressive prison sentencing.

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In an odd twist, deficit hawk Republicans are fighting with tough-on-crime Democrats to pass legislation for fairer, less aggressive prison sentencing. The Los Angeles Times writes that Congress is considering two bills — one that would cut in half mandatory minimum sentences, and another that would make it easier for prisoners to win early release. While budget-conscious Republicans see the shift as necessary to stem rising prison costs, Democrats are worried about appearing soft on crime. The thing is, the left has been here before.

Democrats' fear of being labelled soft on crime was the impetus behind the 1986 law that introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The residual effects of that are evident today — President Obama is planning on granting clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of non-violent drug offenders serving mandatory long sentences, as Yahoo News reported on MondayHere's a how the federal government made harsh drug offense sentences the law, and what's being done to roll that back. 

The Tough on Crime Years

June 19, 1986: College basketball player Len Bias dies of a cocaine overdose, which highly politicized the drug debate during a mid-term election year, as Frontline explains. In 1999, Eric Sterling, a former lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee would go on to explain to This American Life how Democrats, in an effort to recover from their soft on crime reputation, pushed through a drug bill that introduced mandatory minimum sentences. 

"They were told, look, you've got one month to put together your anti-drug agenda and then you're going to go home in the middle of August and you're going to campaign the hell out of that agenda," Sterling said. "We had no hearings. We did not consult with the Bureau of Prisons, or with the federal judiciary, or with DEA, or with the Justice Department, to at least find out from those folks what would be the effect of mandatory minimums."

October 27, 1986: Reagan signs into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Frontline writes that the law allocated funds to new prisons, drug education, and treatment. But its main result was to create mandatory minimum sentences. The harsh sentences on crack cocaine use disproportionately affect African-Americans.

1988: The "Weekend Pass" attack ad airs, accusing Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who stabbed a gas attendant 19 times, failed to return after a weekend furlough in Massachusetts, and committed robbery and rape. Dukakis was the governor at the time. "It made white Americans – especially white southerners – raise and eyebrow and think, ‘We can’t have a man from Massachusetts releasing quote black criminals all across the country and letting them rape our white women and children,’" Democratic strategist Jimmy Williams would say in 2013, according to MSNBC. "That was the point of that ad.”

September 1993: More Americans think the primary purpose of prison is to punish, not rehabilitate.

September 13, 1994: President Clinton passes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which the administration presents as both tough and smart on crime, according to a White House release. It increases drug treatment programs and gun safety laws, but also allocates more money for prisons and issues harsher sentences, including a three-strikes law. Twenty-four states pass three-strikes laws between 1993 and 1995, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

May 1995: The U.S. Sentencing Commission recommends that Congress revisit mandatory minimums, especially the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine, according to Frontline. Congress overrides the recommendation.

1995: There are more than 1.5 million people in prison, up from 949,000 in 1993 and 329,000 in 1980, according to The Urban Institute.

2003: Congress creates, increases, or expands nearly 40 mandatory minimum sentences.

Smart on Crime

January 20, 2004: During his State of the Union address, President Bush proposes a prisoner rehabilitation initiative that will eventually become the Second Chance Act. Bush says, "Tonight I propose a four-year, $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."

December 24, 2006: The New York Times Magazine notes that Republicans are getting softer on crime. "Increasingly, Republicans are talking about helping ex-prisoners find housing, drug treatment, mental-health counseling, job training and education."

April 9, 2008: Bush signs in to law the Second Chance Act, allocating $362 million to help recently released prisoners re-enter society.

July 28, 2010: The Obama administration passes its first and only sentencing law, as The Washington Post reported at the time. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine.

Late 2012: According to Yahoo, by the end of his first term, Obama expresses frustration with how few pardon recommendations reached his desk, and began talking with Attorney General Eric Holder about how pardons could be used as part of a broader criminal-justice reform strategy.

November 2, 2012: ProPublica reports that Obama grants pardons at a lower rate than any president before him.

August 12, 2013: The Associated Press notes Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative, which aims to divert non-violent, low level drug offenders to treatment instead of jail, and make sure those offenders aren't charged with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

December 19, 2013:  Obama grants eight pardons to recipients of harsh sentences for drug offenses, including a man serving three life sentences for a drug deal.

January 23, 2014: Texas Gov. Rick Perry comes out in favor of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

March 13, 2014: Holder testifies before the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommending a change in the way federal drug crimes are sentenced, according to The Huffington Post. If passed, the new policy would reduce sentences by an average of 11 months and affect 69.9 percent of drug trafficking offenders.

March 2014: Rand Paul, whose push for prison reform helped launch the GOP's more compassionate stance on crime, calls for reform during the Conservative Political Action Conference. So does Perry.

Today: There are now 2.4 million people in prison in America.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.