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.