06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sentencing Cameron Douglas -- Or, the Selective Implementation of the War on Drugs

In a courtroom in lower Manhattan this past week, Cameron Douglas was sentenced to five years in prison on drug-related charges. In lieu of imposing the 10-year sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines, the judge practically reduced the term by half. What if judges routinely and consistently departed from sentencing guidelines? What impact could it have on the composition of the inmate population nationwide?

Last summer, Cameron Douglas was arrested for dealing crystal meth out of the Gransevoort Hotel in New York City's Meatpacking District. Some time thereafter, while under house arrest, Mr. Douglas was charged with heroin possession. Earlier this year, Mr. Douglas pleaded guilty to these various drug charges.

In the pre-sentencing phase of the trial, Mr. Douglas' family rallied to his defense and launched a vigorous public relations campaign. Friends and relatives wrote letters to the judge pleading for leniency, given Mr. Douglas' history of addiction. Obviously, their pleas were heeded.

Cameron Douglas may have caught a lucky break. But that's not the case for many others. According to the Sentencing Project:

more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the 'war on drugs,' in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Increasingly these figures include immigrants, many of them legal permanent residents, some arrested for misdemeanors such as marijuana possession. They face the double penalty of a criminal sentence followed by immigration detention, then deportation to the country of their birth. I can't help but wonder how many of their friends and relatives pleaded for leniency and with what results.

Arlene M. Roberts is the author of The Faces of Detention and Deportation: A Report on the Forced Repatriation of Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.