The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How drug-related violence complicates criminal justice reform

Even as we pursue criminal justice reform, Americans remain uncomfortable with showing drug criminals mercy.

Rhonda Johnson tears up while speaking in a hearing in Washington on June 13 to help a judge decide if Rayful Edmond III, a drug lord who was sentenced to life without parole in 1990, could be released on parole. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The war on drugs is back in the news in 2019. Confronting the opioid crisis and the new fear over vaping, we’re grappling with the impulse to ban potentially dangerous drugs and punish those who provide. At the same time, while considering the presidential candidacy of Joe Biden, the onetime champion of mass incarceration, we wonder if this impulse, which has driven U.S. policy for almost a half-century, has done more harm than good.

Public ambivalence is clear in the case of Rayful Edmond III, the 1980s powder and crack cocaine drug kingpin of Washington, who is being considered for release from prison after 29 years behind bars. Federal prosecutors argue that Edmond deserves early release in exchange for decades of cooperation with authorities, which led to a multitude of narcotics convictions. Washington residents, however, surveyed recently at the request of U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who will decide Edmond’s fate, are less sanguine about his release. They were evenly split when asked about freeing Edmond.

Edmond’s fate speaks to our current debate over America’s carceral state and the role the war on drugs has played in building it. D.C. residents’ ambivalence over releasing Edmond reveals, too, just how difficult it is, emotionally and politically, to fix a punishing criminal justice system that has arguably helped to rip apart our national social fabric and undermine racial equality in the United States.

Many D.C. residents who remember the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s might have difficulty seeing Edmond as an ideal example for sentence reduction and early release. To hold his drug-selling territory, a maze of alleys just a few blocks from Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington, Edmond’s crew wholesaled violence and brutality. Police contend that in the late 1980s these men murdered some 30 of their competitors.

And Edmond flaunted his ill-gotten gains; he was an almost parodic version of a 1980s crack kingpin. He drove a Porsche, owned a Jaguar with gold-inlaid hubcaps and was chauffeured by his lieutenants in a sparkling white Jeep Cherokee. He sported a $45,000 diamond-encrusted Rolex. He and his men spent nearly a half-million dollars at Georgetown’s exclusive men’s store, Linea Pitti.

Many observers worried that this ostentatious display of wealth lured young African American men to the drug trade. Underworld chronicler Seth Ferranti noted: “When they stepped out it was like a walking advertisement for drug dealers, young black millionaire, have money, get paid. Everyone in the hood wanted to be down with the Rayful Edmond show.” A program director for the Washington Boys and Girls Club in 1989 mournfully observed, “The kids looked up to him.” So putting Edmond in prison forever was a big way to “just say no” to the lure of the drug trade. Sending that message seemed to many respectable people, black and white, to be a necessity.

In 1990, at the age of 25, Edmond was sentenced to life imprisonment. He had been in the drug business since he was 9. And Edmond was far from unique: He was just one of the many drug kingpins — and lower-level players in the drug trade — who were sentenced to mercilessly long prison sentences in the 1980s and 1990s. As astute observers of America’s carceral state have noted, those drug dealers who landed long prison bids were, in vastly disproportionate numbers, African American.

Edmond’s case suggests just how difficult reforming the criminal justice system will be — and also why tough-on-crime policies were enacted in the first place. Edmond was convicted only on drug charges, but many D.C. residents remember the violence his crew inflicted to facilitate their drug trade. His criminal reign hit some of Washington’s poorest citizens with devastating force.

And the impulse that put Edmond behind bars was not just a conservative crusade. Less than four years before Edmond was sentenced, basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose shortly after the Boston Celtics made him the second overall pick in the NBA draft. For many, Bias’s death drove home the need for action. Eulogizing Bias, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson lamented: “Ropes never killed as many of our young people as the pushers of drugs. … We must make his death the turning point.” New York congressman Charles B. Rangel, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, made imprisoning drug dealers his number one legislative priority.

Politicians, white and black, liberal and conservative, saw the drug “epidemic” as a crisis that demanded response. This belief drove presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton, and legislators ranging from Rangel to Biden to South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond to support harsh penalties for drug use and, especially, for drug dealing. In so doing, they were both responding to public demand and driving public opinion, especially when it came to crack dealers. Clinton, his political antennae ever attuned to the electorate, assured Americans that during his presidency, “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.”

Over the past decade, as the opioid epidemic has spread across the United States, an increasing number of Americans have concluded that the punitive war on drugs has done little to keep Americans safe from the ravages of addiction. Instead, the war on drugs punished the poor, especially poor African Americans (while often ignoring suburban white drug dealers).

Federal prosecutors’ call for Edmond’s release from prison is one more indicator of an increasingly bipartisan commitment to reform a criminal justice system that has imprisoned so many black men. Balancing Edmond’s particular crimes with his attempts at recompense — his cooperation with authorities helped put many dangerous and violent people behind bars, even if it was driven by his hope for early release — is not easy. But Edmond does stand in for many others who were sentenced to prison in America’s war on drugs, and his case suggests why addressing the harms of mass incarceration won’t be easy. Too many of these sentences, targeted disproportionately at black men, were unjust. They left too little room for imprisoned people to demonstrate that they had — through education and training, cooperation, exemplary behavior or simply aging out of likely recidivism — balanced the books on their crimes.

In 2019, after so many decades of draconian prison sentences, it is time to begin seriously considering the release of those who were imprisoned for crimes that, through most of U.S. history, would have been treated with far more leniency. It is also time to rethink a punitive criminal justice system that has destroyed families and communities, while doing little to make Americans safer. Rayful Edmond is not an easy case, as the divided public opinion over his release indicates. Still, after a disastrous 50-year-long war on drugs, even hard cases deserve justice.