In the wake of Prince’s death as the result of a fentanyl overdose, a measure has been proposed in Congress that would impose harsh new mandatory prison terms for offenses involving tiny quantities of the drug.
In a commentary published by The Marshall Project, The Sentencing Project’s Jeremy Haile and Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance discuss the perils of a “tough on crime” approach to fentanyl in the wake of Prince’s death.
But we have been here before. Thirty years ago this month, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose just hours after the Boston Celtics selected him second overall in the 1986 NBA Draft. His death sparked a whirlwind of panic about crack cocaine, the new drug that reportedly killed him.
Within a few months, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which enacted harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses. The new law imposed a mandatory prison sentence of five years for possessing just five grams of crack.
The devastation of that “tough on crime” approach to drugs still reverberates today. For more than two decades, thousands of individuals were sentenced under draconian crack penalties. By 1996, the average federal crack sentence was 10 years in prison — far surpassing penalties for any other drug. Due to racial disparities in law enforcement, more than 80 percent of individuals prosecuted for these offenses were black.
Read the full commentary on The Marshall Project.