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March 24, 2010 -- Dallas News (TX)

Editorial: Cocaine, Crack And Questions About Fairness

By James Ragland

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


The Texas Rangers' manager isn't the only big leaguer staring down a cocaine predicament.

Congress is, too.

The lawmakers' sticky problem is one of far more significance to America's legal system and the nation's social fabric than Ron Washington's pathetic woes.

What Congress is angling to do would redefine the criminal justice playing field as we know it today.

At issue is a growing and long overdue effort by some federal lawmakers to reduce the wide and unjustifiable disparity in sentences doled out to those convicted of crack and powder cocaine.

They're getting close.

Last Wednesday, on the same day Sports Illustrated reported that Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season, a key Senate committee was, coincidentally, hammering away at the sentencing disparity issue.

The work by the Senate Judiciary Committee unfortunately was overshadowed locally by Washington's personal confession ­ he said he used cocaine one time ­ and nationally by the raging debate over health care reform.

The committee unanimously approved the aforementioned bill that would narrow the sentencing gap between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses.

"If this bill is enacted into law," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Associated Press, "it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system."

The measure isn't the home run sought by Durbin and other lawmakers who want to completely equalize the punishment. (The House Judiciary Committee voted 16-9 last summer to do exactly that.)

But I'd call it a stand-up double. Better still, given that the Senate bill was a bipartisan compromise that won full committee support, it suggests that Congress is well on its way to at least reducing the disparity, perhaps as early as next month.

OK, now let's talk about what the current 100-to-1 sentencing disparity means: Someone convicted of possessing crack cocaine now gets the same mandatory jail sentence as someone with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine. More to the point, it means that someone possessing as little as 5 grams of crack faces a mandatory five-year minimum sentence in prison.

That has never made much sense to me.

Don't get me wrong. As someone who has buried three misguided relatives caught up in the crack epidemic, I certainly understand the grave concerns that prompted lawmakers to effectively create a dual punishment scheme: one for powder cocaine, a drug linked to wealthy, glamorous types, and another for crack, a cheap derivative associated with poverty and crime.

Crack cocaine rocked many inner cities in the early '80s, ushering in a new wave of violence on street corners.

"A lot of that turned out to be mythology in hindsight," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit pushing to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. "The violence associated with crack was not associated with the drug itself but with the drug market."

As the crack epidemic took root, turf battles cropped up. "People who sold [powder] cocaine would stand on these corners, and then these people with crack came," said Mauer.

But a sharp rise in both violence and drug use led many lawmakers to believe that crack was inherently more dangerous and insidious than other drugs. So we ended up with the 100-to-1 sentencing guideline that not only has filled up prisons but fueled long-held concerns that our criminal-justice system is racially biased.

Nearly 5,000 people, most of them black men, are locked up in federal prisons each year for relatively minor drug offenses.

Durbin cited figures showing that blacks made up 30 percent of crack users but represented more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack charges. Study after study has shown such racial bias.

And yet, we keep lockin' 'em up and throwing away the key.

Since 1980, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has mushroomed from under 5,000 to nearly 100,000 last year, or more than half of all federal inmates.

"This notorious law has led to enormous racial disparity in federal prison and contributed to a perception of unfairness within communities of color," said Mauer. "Addressing this misguided policy is long overdue."

I have no problem at all with our nation's drug sentences being as tough as they come. But they ought to be fair.

Also visit our "Crack / Powder Cocaine" section.

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