Racism as Law

Does the number 1 equal 100? In common math it does not, but when you are talking federal drug sentencing it unfortunately does. If you distribute just five grams of crack, it carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence. If you distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine, it carries the same sentence. This 100:1 sentencing disparity has been condemned for its racially discriminatory impact by a wide array of criminal justice and civil rights groups. Hispanics and whites make up the majority of crack cocaine users, but the majority of those convicted under crack cocaine offenses are African Americans.

After many years of heated debate over the issue of crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparities, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to ease the penalties for crack on November 1, 2007. A hearing was held on November 13 to determine whether or not to apply retroactively recommended revisions to the federal guidelines that lowered the minimum sentences for crack cocaine-related offenses. If recommended, about 4,000 prisoners will be released this year by shaving an average of two years off their sentences, with almost 16,000 to follow. In theory, it would be the largest single act to reduce the sentences of federal prisoners.

Critics were quick to exploit the age old defensive argument that the flood gates of hell would be opened if such an action were to become law. The Justice Department quickly put out a statement saying that the proposed changes to the law would put thousands of violent criminals back on the streets. The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys warned that by freeing thousands of prisoners it would overburden prosecutors. Advocates rebutted saying that if the law is passed it will be a small step towards mitigating the sentence disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which disproportionately affects people of color. Even federal judges like Chief Justice Robert Pratt of Iowa, has said that talk of a sudden large amount of freed prisoners was inflated, and that work loads should not prevent creating fair sentencing in crack cocaine cases that serves the interests of justice.

Some say that Congress probably did not set out to pass racially discriminatory crack cocaine laws some twenty years ago. Whether or not these laws were created with the intention of targeting African Americans, let’s make no mistake about it: it has. Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “We are encouraged by the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s commitment to do what is in their power to address harsh crack cocaine sentences, and we are hopeful that the Commission will apply this relief retroactively. However, only the U.S. Congress can eliminate the racist sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences and we implore them to do so now.”

The unfair sentencing that is in effect was enacted based on the many myths that surround crack use. These included media stories that told of a “crack baby” epidemic in the 1980s, stories now found to be greatly exaggerated or flat out lies. Research now shows that factors such as smoking and drinking, malnutrition, inadequate sleep, and poverty are responsible for the many pre-natal ailments associated with crack use. Criminal penalties for possession and sales of cocaine are severe. But the penalties for crack cocaine are much more severe, despite the fact that pharmacologically they are the same drug. If these suggested changes, take affect and are applied retroactively, it will do a lot to balance the scales of justice in reforming a bad law that has dished out unfair sentences to people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: anthonypapa123@yahoo.com

Papa’s artwork can be viewed at: www.15yearstolife.com/art1.htm


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.