Race, Drugs, and Sentencing: A Quantitative Analysis of Sentencing Outcomes for Federal Cocaine and Methamphetamine Drug Offenses
Wells, Makeela Johari
AdvisorHaynes, Stacy H.
CommitteeHagerman, Margaret Ann
Johnson, Kecia R.
May, David C.
For decades, the United States has fought a “War on Drugs” with no success. This war has led to substantial increases in the number of individuals incarcerated in the United States prison system. The following dissertation investigates the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA 2010) on sentencing decisions for crack and powder cocaine offenders sentenced in the federal system. The FSA 2010 is a federal policy that reduced the crack-to-powder cocaine quantity from 100-to1 to 18-to-1 in an effort to reduce racial/ethnic disparity in sentencing associated with harsh penalties. Specifically, I examined federal crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenders sentenced during the years 2005-2009 (pre-FSA 2010) and 2011-2015 (post-FSA 2010). I begin with a discussion of how the social construction of drug use has framed society’s ideas about drugs and how drug offenders should be handled. Second, I outline how the perceived threat of racial/ethnic minorities has contributed the disproportionate number of racial/ethnic minorities in the United States prison system. Data for these analyses are drawn from the United States Sentencing Commission’s (USSC) Monitoring of the Federal Criminal Sentences program for the years 2005-2015 and state data from the American Community Survey, the United States Federal Election Commission, and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Multilevel analyses were used to examine the influence of extralegal, legal, and contextual factors on the incarceration decision and the determination of sentence length for federal drug offenders. Results revealed that the FSA 2010 has had some influence on federal sentencing decisions after its introduction. Additional analyses examined sentencing decisions for federal cocaine and methamphetamine offenses to determine whether the factors influencing sentencing decisions for federal drug offenders vary by drug type. The existing literature shows that cocaine and methamphetamine have been socially constructed in different ways, with cocaine production and use framed as a crime problem and methamphetamine as a public health concern. Supplemental analyses revealed that there was no substantive significance in the sentencing outcomes for federal cocaine and methamphetamine offenders. Theoretical and policy implications, limitations, and directions of future research are discussed.