In 2004, the U.S. Sentencing Commission again called attention to the racial disparities produced by the 100-to-1 rule. This meant that the same sentence would be applied to a dealer holding 50 grams of crack as the one selling 100 times that amount in cocaine, enough to fill a briefcase. In 1986, before federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, the average federal prison sentence for African Americans charged with these crimes was 11 percent longer than it was for whites; by 1990, it was 49 percent longer, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2006, four years before the 100-to-1 rule was revised, 80 percent of defendants sentenced for crack offenses were African American, even though two-thirds of users were white or Hispanic, reports the New York Times. The entwined crack and crime epidemics that unfolded during the 1980s and 1990s left a catalog of destabilizing legacies. The most recent chapter is playing out in a national crisis around aging in the penal system, and out of it. Data from the Osborne Association suggest that by 2030, the population of prisoners 50 and older will account for one-third of all incarcerated people — an increase of 4,400 percent over a span of a half-century.
Decades of mass incarceration have resulted in a prison population growing older and more enfeebled, and has introduced the challenge of reintegrating people coming out after long sentences, often with few skills, into a society that technology has made alienatingly unfamiliar. Last June, Osborne opened a residence in part of a new building within the Marcus Garvey housing complex in Brooklyn for people over 50 exiting long prison terms. Men and women in this situation are among the most vulnerable to homelessness, but housing built around their specific needs is exceedingly rare. The Osborne model is the first of its kind in New York. Beyond the rooms themselves, the facility provides psychological counseling, drug counseling, connections to doctors, job placement and so on. The objective is to scale the program up in other places in the city and state and serve as a blueprint for what might be done elsewhere. Older people are among the most socially isolated after release from prison,” said Bruce Western, chair of the sociology department at Columbia University and an expert on re-entry. In his research he found that they have the least support coming home — both in terms of financial and emotional help. “Some people were in prison repeatedly or for long periods of time, and families often cannot sustain the relationships.”