Friday, October 19, 2007

“Sprinkle A Little Crack On Em”

The sentences for crack cocaine are some of the harshest in our criminal justice system. Crack cocaine is the crystallized, highly-addictive form of cocaine used primarily by blacks and other poor people. The disparity between the sentences given out to crack users and low-level dealers and the same given to powder cocaine users is 100 to 1. Which means a powder cocaine user would have to possess 100 times the amount of powder as a crack user to receive the same amount of jail time. Now both users would possess the same drug, just in different forms. It would be like me getting 20 years for having ice cubes and you getting 5 years for having water, we both would have the same thing. So why is there a discrepancy in sentencing?

When crack cocaine was introduced, America was in the midst of another one of its “get tough” on crime initiatives. Crack was being depicted as the scourge of all that was bad in the ghetto and so required harsher sentences according to the logic. The sad part about it is that many of the black legislators at the time signed off on these harsher sentences. Because crack is used primarily in the black community, it soon became apparent that the black community was hit disproportionately by these new sentencing guidelines.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), a division of the judicial branch that monitors and advises Congress on sentencing policy, in 2006, more than four-fifths of crack cocaine offenders in federal courts were black.

The 1986 drug laws have had a devastating effect on the U.S. criminal justice system. Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1100 percent since 1980, from 41,000 people to nearly 500,000.

Nearly 6 out of 10 people in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug-selling activity but are often receiving harsher sentences than people who do. People caught with the drug in 2004, the last year for which data is available, served an average of ten years in federal penitentiaries, while the average convict served 2.9 years for manslaughter, 3.1 years for assault and 5.4 years for sexual abuse.[1]

We are sentencing people for crack cocaine related offenses more harshly than those convicted of manslaughter. Is that crazy or what, you get more time for crack than you do for killing someone. There is something dreadfully wrong when this occurs. Because of the mandatory minimums associated with crack, the federal judges are powerless to alter the sentences. Judges are no longer allowed any discretion in their sentencing of crack defendants, they must impose the harsher sentences even if they feel they are not warranted.

There is currently a case before the Supreme Court where a federal judge decided not to impose the harsher sentence and was overruled by the appellate court because he did not have the authority to change the sentence. The federal judge felt it was wrong to impose harsher sentences for crack versus powder cocaine and so he imposed the lower sentencing for powder. It is important to see if the Supreme Court will rule the disparity in sentencing unconstitutional, because the only difference in the two drugs is who uses them and where they use it.

I know firsthand the devastation that crack cocaine can do to a family and a community, so I would never try to minimize its effects. I also know that crack like all drugs is a social health issue and not a criminal issue. To say that one drug is more immoral to take than another is illogical and bias. There are millions of Americans who are receiving legal prescriptions for all types of mood enhancers and suppressants, are we to believe that because they are prescribed by doctors and made by pharmaceutical companies that they are any less addictive and safe. So, the housewife in Brentwood gets her valium, while the poor person in Watts gets 20 years for crack. I personally side with the same approach we took with alcohol and tobacco; we educate and try to minimize the adverse effects to our society from its misuse.

People are going to take some form of drug or attempt to escape life in some form. You have people who drive too fast, you have people who skydive, and there are millions of Americans who participate in risky behavior that we do not outlaw. The Draconian drug laws we try to enforce have had a devastating effect on the black community and there needs to be changes. I believe that the current bills in Congress go toward alleviating some of those effects. I find the bill sponsored by Senator Joe Biden to be especially enlightened and support it whole-heartedly.

It is time we remove the inherent unfairness and possible racism from our drug policies. As Black Americans we need to begin to ask our candidates and political leaders to begin to take these issues to the frontline of the political debate. We need to know where the candidates stand on the issues that affect our communities in a disproportionate fashion. The time for blind loyalty is over, if candidates want our votes they must address our issues. The devastation of crack is a major issue in our communities and must be addressed. So let’s sprinkle a little crack on Hillary, Obama, and John.


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