In early 2006, a young man named DeJarion Echols stood in a federal courtroom in Waco, Texas, and pleaded for leniency. After police found about 40 grams of crack cocaine, cash and an assault rifle in his bedroom, the promising athlete and father pleaded guilty to crack distribution and gun charges. "I made a bad choice" by dealing crack to pay for college, Echols, then 23, told U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. According to a court transcript, the judge declared in apparent frustration, "This is one of those situations where I'd like to see a congressman sitting before me." Then he did what federal law required: Smith sentenced Echols to two back-to-back 10-year prison sentences, one for each charge. Unless he gets a commutation, Echols will not go free till around 2026. (Read "The Disturbing Rise of Drug Gangs.")
As Echols serves his 20 years, reformers of drug sentencing laws are closing in on a goal that was unthinkable even a few years ago: scrapping the federal sentencing structure established in 1986 that gives far harsher penalties for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, resulting in prisons packed with low-level, predominantly African American offenders. The mechanism is known as the "100-to-1 drug ratio," which gives crack cocaine 100 times the weight of powder cocaine. Under the ratio, a person convicted of selling five grams of crack — about the weight of a teaspoon of salt — triggers the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as a person convicted of selling 500 grams of powder cocaine, roughly the weight of a loaf of bread. (Read "U.N. World Drug Report.")
Even if that ratio is abolished, as appears increasingly likely, it's not clear that it will benefit offenders like Echols, who are already behind bars. The fates of tens of thousands of prisoners serving long sentences could hang in the balance as policymakers and politicians grapple with whether changes to the nation's crack laws should be applied retroactively.The issue of crack sentencing goes to the heart of the credibility and fairness of the federal judicial system. The Department of Justice has launched a top-to-bottom review of sentencing and corrections policy, and crack-cocaine policy is a "vitally important" part of that, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer told TIME, so much so that the Administration fast-tracked its position on cocaine parity. "The criminal-justice system must be fair, and it must be perceived as being fair," Breuer says. "The 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder is perhaps the single worst symbol of unfairness in the system. There really is no longer any basis for it."