Disparity in Drug Laws Tears Black Families Apart

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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

There's a law that some experts say contributes mightily to the destruction of low-income African American families and neighborhoods. It's not a law that specifically prohibits them from getting a job or a loan or buying a home or voting. But the effect is often the same.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 doesn't sound as onerous as, say, the Black Codes of the late 1800s, which legalized arbitrary imprisonment to limit the movement of newly freed slaves. But when it comes to ruthless incarceration, nothing compares with this federal drug law: It has subjected tens of thousands of black people to lengthy prison terms for possessing ridiculously small amounts of crack cocaine.

"If you want to know why black children are overrepresented in foster care at four times the rate of the national population, then look no further than the mass incarceration of black people," Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, told me recently. "The vast majority of them are nonviolent drug users, many first-time offenders. Instead of providing them with the treatment they need, we send them to prison, often breaking up their families in the process."

A campaign to reform the drug law hit a milestone last week when the Justice Department endorsed plans to end the measure's most odious aspect: a sentencing disparity in which anyone caught with five grams of crack gets the same five-year mandatory minimum prison term as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.

But the fight is far from over. Congress could simply raise the penalty for powder cocaine instead of lowering it for crack. Maybe police would then start targeting the well-heeled, uptown coke-snorting crowd, as unlikely as that may be. The effort would be counterproductive nonetheless, because law enforcement would still be diverted away from drug kingpins, the original targets of the law.

"There are about 10,000 federal crack and powder cocaine cases a year, two-thirds of them involving the lowest-level offenders in the drug trade," Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, told me. "If you look at the average sentence imposed on low-level offenders and the amount of crack cocaine involved in those cases, then compare that to the average sentence given to high-level offenders and the amount of powder cocaine involved in those cases, you'll find that the low-level offenders are being punished 300 times more severely than the kingpins."

In 2007, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses were African American, though only 25 percent of crack users are black. In other words, law enforcement officials have become so focused on busting small-time black drug users that almost everybody else in the drug trade gets a free ride.

You would think there would be a tremendous outcry against this kind of systemic oppression. But efforts to change the law have plodded along for two decades. Never mind that research into cocaine addiction has found no significant difference between the effects of smoking cocaine and snorting it, certainly nothing that would warrant such vast differences in law enforcement.

Last month, about 100 members of the Crack the Disparity Coalition showed up on Capitol Hill to lobby for elimination of the harsh penalties for crack cocaine. They should be applauded. But when you have nearly a million black people behind bars, most for using drugs, there should have been a whole lot more caring souls among them.

"These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting on the sentencing disparity laws.

Too bad he couldn't have said that the relationship between law enforcement and all communities was being corroded. But such is the mythological power of crack throughout much of America, a demon drug so evil, so craved by imaginary black crack fiends, that apparently no law is too draconian, no tactic too racist to be deployed in a war against them.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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