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July 5, 2006 - Boston Globe (MA)

OpEd: The Disparity On Crack-Cocaine Sentencing

By Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and author of "Race to Incarcerate."

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THE RECENT conclusion of the NBA Finals coincided with a tragic anniversary of particular relevance for basketball fans. Twenty years ago University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose just hours after being selected second in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.

His death sparked a national whirlwind of media attention and public scrutiny largely focused on the drug, crack cocaine, that was suspected of killing him.

We can only speculate what type of professional career Bias might have had, but all bets were that it was going to be a stellar one. Unfortunately, the legacy that remains with us is not a result of his professional sports career, but as a key stimulus for the notorious federal crack-cocaine mandatory sentencing laws.

Shortly after Bias's death, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on crack cocaine.

During the hearing's debate, senators cited Bias's death 11 times.

By the fall, Congress had adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which included harsh new mandatory sentences for low-level crack offenses.

Defendants convicted with just 5 grams of crack cocaine, the weight of 5 sugar packets, were subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The same penalty was triggered for powder cocaine only when an offense involved at least 500 grams.

Twenty years later, the aftermath of these laws is sobering.

More than 80 percent of the defendants prosecuted for a crack offense are African-American, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic. By and large, these defendants are not the kingpins of the drug trade.

Data from the US Sentencing Commission document that 73 percent of crack defendants had only low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street-level dealers, couriers, or lookouts.

The commission also has found that crack cocaine sentences are the single most significant factor contributing to racial disparity in federal sentencing.

The legacy of Len Bias goes beyond just crack-sentencing policies, though, incorporating two decades of declining social and economic prospects for African-American males in particular.

As a result of the drug war and a host of harsh sentencing policies such as mandatory minimums and "three strikes" laws, imprisonment has increasingly become almost the norm in many low-income communities. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 black males born today will spend time in astate or federal prison in his lifetime.

These trends are exacerbated by the cruel intersection of socioeconomic policy and criminal justice policy.

For young black men in the most disadvantaged schools, high dropout rates become a pathway to prison, with more than half of black male dropouts having been incarcerated by their mid-30s.

These outcomes contribute to a vicious cycle whereby incarceration reduces future job prospects and earnings power.

In addition, there is an increasing spillover effect on families and communities. In the nation's capital, neighborhoods most heavily affected by imprisonment have only 62 adult men for every 100 women.

Some of these missing men are in the military or have suffered an early death, but many are behind bars. Needless to say, women's prospects for finding marriage and parenting partners are affected by these dynamics.

In cities around the country, we find the same disturbing story.

While efforts to reform the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity have previously been rebuffed by the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, there may now be an opening for reconsideration on Capitol Hill.

Increasingly, there is a bipartisan recognition that not only have the crack laws exacerbated racial disparity, they also represent an inappropriate federal usurpation of state law-enforcement priorities. To the extent that crack offenses are prosecuted in court, it makes little sense to utilize federal resources for a primarily low-level offender group.

In addition, there is increasing skepticism about whether these mandatory sentencing policies have been effective in controlling the supply of drugs.

Certainly, given trends in the price or availability of crack cocaine, there is little evidence of this. Given these dynamics, not only are liberal Democrats such as Representative Charles Rangel introducing reform legislation, but Republican Senator Jeff Sessions has now indicated his interest in addressing the disparity as well.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in the Bias case is that he did not in fact die of a crack overdose, but rather from snorting powder cocaine.

Both drugs are dangerous, of course, but the tragic loss of a talented young man on the brink of a limitless future has been callously used to severely curtail opportunity for thousands of other promising young people. This year is an appropriate time to change public policy to better serve the next generation of black men.

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