In Crack vs. Powder, Justice Is the Loser

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What is justice when it comes to crack cocaine? The Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission weighed in on the matter last week ["For Crack Offenders, Earlier Shot at Release," front page, Dec. 12]. Nearly 20,000 federal inmates incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses will now be eligible for earlier parole, including 270 prisoners from the District, 280 from Maryland and 1,400 from the Eastern District of Virginia (Northern Virginia and the Richmond and Tidewater areas).

From the perspective of one who has been addicted to crack, gone to jail and lived in recovery for 22 years, the idea of reducing crack sentences to match those of powder cocaine is dead wrong:

¿ It's wrong because it won't bring "justice" to crack offenders, roughly 85 percent of whom are African American.

¿ Most important, it's wrong because cocaine -- from which all crack is derived -- may well be making a quiet comeback while we're busy debating who is guiltier: the crack smoker or the cocaine snorter.

When it comes to crack, justice is less about reducing sentences than about guiding offenders back on the path of correct behavior -- through long-term drug treatment programs that deliver strict accountability with support for change.

For this crack smoker, justice meant being freed of the bondage of addiction, something that no sentence, long or short, can ever do.

I owe my life and my recovery to a critical jump-start from the criminal justice system. When I was arrested for crack possession, barefoot, emaciated and strung-out in a motel parking lot in September 1985, the 10-year sentence threatened by the judge in Arlington County for my possession of two grams of crack got my attention. It kept me focused, long and hard, on exchanging my lifestyle of self-destruction for one of self-improvement. Every time I thought of running out the doors of a two-year boot camp treatment program, the sentence hanging over my head kept me put.

A bigger question must be asked: When will we stop defending the right of any drug offender to self-destruct and instead concern ourselves with his or her opportunity to improve through long-term compassionate treatment that includes hard accountability, both inside and outside prison walls?

While lawmakers argue the finer points of punishment, cocaine appears to be creeping back into our lives. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the government survey that measures illegal drug use, reports that since 2002, more than 5 million people have tried cocaine for the first time. Many experts agree that what drives an epidemic is an increase in first-time use of the drug. According to the former director of research, planning and budget at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Carnevale, "The time to act to prevent cocaine's current reemergence has passed. Action should have occurred in the late 1990s and early this decade."

Moreover, the near doubling of cocaine-related deaths in Florida in a recent five-year period has prompted Mark S. Gold, an internationally recognized researcher at the University of Florida, to state: "A new cocaine epidemic, similar to the one that swept the U.S. in the 1980s, appears to be in the making. With the death rate climbing highest in Florida's college towns and wealthy enclaves, we are in the early stages of a new cocaine epidemic that is being led by the rich and famous and students with large amounts of disposable income."

Must we relearn the painful lessons of the past? That cocaine is neither a rich or poor man's drug, that the drug makes no distinction between sex, class or race in whom it destroys? As we approach a new year, I hope that we will rein in the desire to swing open the cell doors for crack offenders. Before we allow these addicts to reclaim the streets of Washington and the nation, let's make sure that we have a system in place to give these people the kind of justice they deserve.

-- Nancy Whittier Dudley

Chevy Chase

The writer worked as special assistant for treatment and health at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1989 to 1992. She has been a drug policy consultant for 15 years.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company