Congress should reconsider country’s draconian drug sentencing laws
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 12/26/2013
President Obama sent the strongest message yet on the nation’s draconian sentencing laws when he granted clemency to eight mostly low-level drug offenders. Obama’s clemencies for these drug offenders follow hard on the heels of US Attorney General Eric Holder’s virtual demand that federal prosecutors rethink who they prosecute for drug crimes and how they do it. That was followed even more closely by congressional passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Before that, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that modified the overly punitive sentence for a convicted cocaine peddler. Their actions wiped out much of the horrid disparity in the blatantly racially tinged sentences that are slapped on crack cocaine users.
The drug sentencing disparities certainly have become a national embarrassment. But they are still on the books. The US Sentencing Commission and Congress now should go much further and put an end to the embarrassment by totally scrapping all sentencing disparities.
They have wreaked dire havoc in mostly poor black communities, as well as cast an ugly glare on the failed and flawed war on drugs. Countless studies have shown that blacks make up the overwhelming majority of those sentenced in federal court for crack cocaine use and sale. Contrary to popular myth and drug warrior propaganda, more than half of crack users are white, and presumably a good portion of them are crack dealers as well. But it’s the heart-wrenching tales of the legions of poor young men and women that have received sentences totaling decades behind bars for the possession or sale of a pittance of cocaine or marijuana that scream out injustice. In many cases, they are young mothers and fathers who, out of poverty and desperation, resorted to the use and sale of drugs.
What has ignited even more outrage is that often their sentences have stood in stark contrast to the sentences of murderers, rapists and bank robbers who in many cases have walked out of prison years before the petty drug offenders. The sentences given to the eight men and women to whom Obama granted clemency are horrific examples of this. Their minimum sentences were 15 years. Some were serving life sentences. The end result of the bloated, grotesque drug war is that the US with 5 percent of the planet’s population has nearly 25 percent of its inmates.
The myths about who uses drugs, their dangers and the injustices in sentencing have been amply exposed in surveys such as one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the drug habits of Americans. It found that whites are much more likely to use drugs than blacks.
Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug usage by blacks and whites. But what made the survey more eye-catching is that it didn’t solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine and street drugs.
The findings flew in the face of the conventional drug war wisdom that blacks use and deal street drugs while whites use trendy, recreational designer drugs, and that these presumably include powder cocaine. That again calls into question the gaping disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks.
In the past, federal prosecutors and lawmakers justified the disparity with the retort that crack cocaine is dangerous and threatening, and that its use and sale leads to waves of gang shoot-outs, turf battles and thousands of terrorized residents in poor black communities. In some instances, that’s true, and police and prosecutors are right to hit back hard at the violence. However, the majority of those who deal and use crack cocaine aren’t violence prone gang members, but poor, and increasingly female, young blacks. They clearly need help, not jailing.
The drug warriors have and will continue to resist any effort to scrap the blatant and deliberate racial disparity in drug sentencing laws. In an odd way, they have to take their hard stand. The public scapegoating of blacks for America’s drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. A frank admission that the laws are biased, unfair and have done little to combat the drug plague would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real soul searching over whether all the billions of dollars that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war — the lives ruined by it and the families torn apart by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws — have really accomplished anything.
This might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place, and if it is really the government’s business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others?
Obama should be applauded for taking the long overdue and much-desired step toward restoring sanity to drug sentencing laws. Now Congress should do what Obama has called for and once and for all end the insanity in the drug sentencing laws. It’s a matter of simple justice.
Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a frequent MSNBC contributor and an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network and hosts of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KTYM AM 1460 radio in Los Angeles and KPFK-FM 90.7 radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.