With so many different legal battles and the passing of major legislation in regards to unemployment benefits, financial reform, Afghan war,etc… Last week another major law passed under the radar, with little media coverage, regarding the countries War on Drugs.
On Wednesday afternoon, the House voted to reduce racial inequity that has historically existed relative to the sentencing of people caught with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. To be charged with a felony, crack users needed to possess only 5 grams of the drug to be sentenced with the same charge that powder cocaine users needed to be caught with (500 grams).
For years, this 100-1 ratio landed many young African-Americans across the country in prison industrial complexes at a much higher rate than Caucasians caught with cocaine in the suburbs. According to research by the Human Rights Watch, “Blacks comprise 62.7 percent and whites 36.7 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prison, although there are five times more white users than black. Moreover, black men are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men.” And, statistics continue to show that there are more Black men (between the ages of 20 and 29) under the control of the nation’s criminal justice system than the total number in college.
Under the bill, brokered by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine would be reduced to 18-to-1. It would also eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the new law could save $42 million in taxpayer funds over the next five years. Although a 1-1 ratio of crack cocaine and powder cocaine would have been ideal, it brings joy to know that lawmakers put aside ideological differences and political posturing to pass a law that has been needed for a very long time. The 18-1 ratio, which means 28 grams of crack cocaine to 500 grams of powder cocaine, is the primary tenet of the Fair Sentencing Act and is a major step forward toward social justice- a virtue that appears to have dissipated away in recent years.
Some critics and legislators believe that the reduction in crack-cocaine sentencing will actually hurt minorities and will result in a growth of apathy toward the culture of drug consumption and distribution. Although I agree that there will logically be some growth of apathy, one cannot forfeit institutionalized racist practices based on the attitudes of individuals who will always find a way to make quick cash even if it harms their community.
By all means, this legislation is not the panacea for all injustices relative to drug trafficking and consumption. Additional steps such as mentoring and accountability, education-based incentives, spiritual restoration and rehabilitation and job programs for former inmates are sorely needed. But, this week, I am filled with a fair amount of jubilation. This country should begin focusing more on public policies that lead to equal opportunities, rights and access exclusive of wealth class, race or any other anthropogenic divisions. And, if President Obama continues to refocus on the “least of these” as represented with this legislation and as he repeatedly promised during his campaign, then he truly will have a transformational presidency that transcends time.
“Today’s vote of the House of Representatives approving the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce disparities in cocaine sentencing represents a significant step forward for greater fairness in our criminal justice system and, hopefully, the start of a more rational approach to dealing with our nation’s drug laws.
While the bill doesn’t completely eliminate the unjust and unjustifiable disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine that has decimated African-American communities across the nation, it will go a long way toward alleviating some of the pain felt in these communities by providing more equitable sentences to low-level crack users and relief to those now serving disproportionately long sentences.
The overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and the Senate for the Fair Sentencing Act is a notable triumph given the all-too-frequent politicization of our drug laws. However, the hard truth remains that any disparity in cocaine sentencing is both morally wrong and corrosive to the public trust that sustains our criminal justice system. The Leadership Conference is fully committed to redoubling its efforts to seek the complete elimination of the sentencing disparity – the only fair and just solution.”