October 27th, 1986

Anti-Drug Abuse Act Creates 100-to-1 Crack/Powder Disparity

On October 27, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law created a significant disparity in the sentences imposed in federal courts for crimes involving powdered cocaine versus the sentences imposed for crimes involving crack cocaine. The law imposed certain mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving certain quantities of powdered cocaine, but those mandatory sentences could also be triggered by crimes involving only one percent of that quantity in cases of crack cocaine. For instance, a drug crime involving five grams of crack cocaine resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, but crimes involving less than 500 grams of powdered cocaine would not trigger the five year minimum sentence.

This one hundred-to-one sentencing disparity, which was not based on credible scientific evidence about differing biological impacts between cocaine in powder form versus crack form, has had a significant impact on the mass incarceration of African Americans. In the years following the enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, admissions of African Americans to federal prison spiked from approximately 50 admissions per 100,000 adults to nearly 250 admissions per 100,000 adults, while there was almost no change among whites. Disparities in sentence lengths also increased. In 1986, African Americans received drug sentences that were 11% longer than sentences received by whites, on average, but that disparity increased to 49% in the years following the law's enactment. This law, and similar laws, had a significant role in increasing the incarcerated population from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.3 million in 2013.