One of the more interesting bits of news during the past couple of weeks has nothing to do with swine flu or the national economy—it was the result of a CBS News / New York Times poll that showed African-Americans feeling much, much better about race relations in America. Less than a year ago, just 29 percent of African-American respondents believed relations between blacks and whites were good; in less than a year, that number has jumped 30 points to 59 percent. What a difference the election of a black president makes!
It comes as little surprise that Barack Obama has joined the effort to fix an injustice that no doubt contributed to black Americans' previous skepticism: The president wants ended the 23-year-old disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine convictions. Under current law, a trafficker of five grams of crack gets a mandatory minimum of five years in prison on first offense, but it would take 100 times that amount of powder coke to net a trafficker the same sentence. Worse, crack carries a mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession while powder does not.
Crack is widely considered a “black” drug, powder coke a “white” drug. Indeed, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission numbers, the vast majority of people convicted of crack offenses are black. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2005 that crack use was greater among whites than blacks, so racism in criminal justice is alive and well. The number of black Americans in prisons on drug charges is far out of line with their overall rate of drug use compared with other races. Injustice of another kind—economic injustice—is a likely contributor to the racial disparity. Poor, inner-city African-Americans are less likely to have adequate legal representation than whites.
Sentencing laws in 1986 and 1988 resulted from hysteria over a perceived crack epidemic. People thought crack came with high rates of violence and addiction. But a 2007 study by Margaret E. Leigey of Chico State University and Ronet Bachman of the University of Delaware, Newark, showed that among inmates who were in state prisons serving time for violent crimes and were under the influence at the time of their crimes, there was no significant statistical difference between those who were high on crack and those who were high on powder. Moreover, Leigey and Bachman found that inmates serving time for violence were more likely to be under the influence of alcohol during the crimes than any form of cocaine. They also cite research that concludes that crack is far less addictive than nicotine.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, noting the racial inequities, has on multiple occasions urged Congress to reduce or eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder. A handful of bills were introduced in 2007 that sought to deal with the problem, but none of them went anywhere. The best of the bunch was the proposed Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act, sponsored by Joe Biden, then a senator and now the vice president. It would have raised the crack sentencing threshold to that of powder, established a grant program for prison drug treatment and increased penalties for major coke traffickers. It's likely that Biden has influenced the Obama administration to spur action.
In any event, Lanny Breuer, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, told a Senate judiciary subcommittee last week that the administration supports equalizing cocaine sentencing as part of an effort to fix a failed war on drugs that has disproportionately netted black Americans, packed prisons nationwide and drained untold amounts of taxpayer dollars.
That CBS / New York Times poll shows that African-Americans are eager to feel better about their place in society, and the president's stance on sentencing will only add to their optimism. A change is long-overdue, and the time for Congress to act is now.What do you think? Write to email@example.com.