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Crack cocaine and American injustice

It's time to end the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses.

August 01, 2009

Consider Eugenia Jennings of Illinois a poster child for American injustice. At the age of 23, the mother of three was arrested for trading just under 14 grams of crack cocaine for designer clothing. Because the federal government has imposed a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and because Jennings had been convicted previously for dealing tiny amounts of crack, she was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. If she had been selling powder cocaine, her sentence would have been half as long.

Jennings, like more than 80% of crack cocaine offenders, is African American. She is one of thousands of nonviolent drug users or dealers who have received shockingly disproportionate sentences under a drug act approved by Congress in 1986. The law, passed at a time when a crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging inner cities and fueling gang violence, was intended to target the kingpins at the top of the crack trade. Instead, according to a 2002 report by the United States Sentencing Commission, it has swept up mostly small-time, street-level dealers, taken away judicial discretion to impose harsher sentences on more serious offenders as well as lighter sentences on those whom judges believe deserve a break, and fostered disrespect for the criminal justice system in black communities.

Equal-justice advocates have been trying to eliminate the sentencing disparity for more than a decade, but they've never had as many powerful backers as they do today. Barack Obama attacked the disparity during the 2008 campaign, and U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. recently called it "simply wrong." Last week, a bill to overturn it was approved by a House subcommittee.

Crack and powder cocaine have identical effects. There is some evidence that crack is slightly more addictive because it is smoked rather than snorted; smoking the drug causes it to reach the brain much faster and also to wear off more quickly -- which in turn makes users want to smoke it more often. But this minor difference hardly justifies imposing the same mandatory minimum sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack as is imposed for 500 grams of powder.

The main difference between the two drugs is that powder cocaine is favored by young whites, and crack is the form of choice for impoverished blacks. The distrust and anger toward the police felt by many African Americans, spotlighted by the recent controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., is partly the result of blatantly discriminatory laws such as the crack disparity. Congress should act soon to overturn it.

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