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Critics say the SOFA Act would harm minority communities

Violent crime rates soared in Georgia and around the country in the 1980s and 1990s because of a new and highly addictive form of cocaine known as crack, and Congress responded by passing tough sentencing laws that led to the mass incarceration of African Americans. The country now faces a new drug menace in the form of powerful opioids that are linked to a nationwide overdose crisis, and Congress is, again, being urged to respond with harsh new laws.

One of the crime bills currently being considered is the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act. The drug was designated a Schedule 1 controlled substance by a Drug Enforcement Administration emergency order in 2018. The SOFA Act would make the Schedule 1 classification permanent. Passing the bill would make it easier for law enforcement and prosecutors to disrupt fentanyl trafficking and distribution. However, the proposed law is opposed by advocacy groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance.

The New York City-based nonprofit said in a report released on Dec. 18 that the impact of the SOFA Act would be felt mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods while doing very little to address the real causes of the nation's drug problem. Figures from a U.S. Sentencing Commission study seem to support this argument. It revealed that only about 16% of the individuals sentenced for trafficking fentanyl in 2016 were aware that they were distributing and transporting the deadly opioid.

The penalties for nonviolent drug crimes are often severe, and even individuals with previously clean records can face years in prison for possessing or selling minor quantities of substances like fentanyl. In these situations, experienced criminal defense attorneys may cite documents like the Drug Policy Alliance report during plea negotiations as they seek to obtain more lenient treatment. A lawyer could also compare the long-term benefits of rehabilitation with the costs of incarceration.

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