Pubdate: Wed, 05 Jul 2006
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2006 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Marc Mauer
Note: Marc Mauer is executive director of The Sentencing Project and 
author of "Race to Incarcerate."
Bookmark: (Len Bias)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


THE RECENT conclusion of the NBA Finals coincided with a tragic
anniversary of particular relevance for basketball fans. Twenty years
ago University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a drug
overdose just hours after being selected second in the NBA draft by
the Boston Celtics. His death sparked a national whirlwind of media
attention and public scrutiny largely focused on the drug, crack
cocaine, that was suspected of killing him.

We can only speculate what type of professional career Bias might have
had, but all bets were that it was going to be a stellar one.
Unfortunately, the legacy that remains with us is not a result of his
professional sports career, but as a key stimulus for the notorious
federal crack-cocaine mandatory sentencing laws. Shortly after Bias's
death, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a
hearing on crack cocaine.

During the hearing's debate, senators cited Bias's death 11

By the fall, Congress had adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which
included harsh new mandatory sentences for low-level crack offenses.
Defendants convicted with just 5 grams of crack cocaine, the weight of
5 sugar packets, were subject to a five-year mandatory minimum
sentence. The same penalty was triggered for powder cocaine only when
an offense involved at least 500 grams.

Twenty years later, the aftermath of these laws is

More than 80 percent of the defendants prosecuted for a crack offense
are African-American, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of
crack users are white or Hispanic. By and large, these defendants are
not the kingpins of the drug trade.

Data from the US Sentencing Commission document that 73 percent of
crack defendants had only low-level involvement in drug activity, such
as street-level dealers, couriers, or lookouts.

The commission also has found that crack cocaine sentences are the
single most significant factor contributing to racial disparity in
federal sentencing.

The legacy of Len Bias goes beyond just crack-sentencing policies,
though, incorporating two decades of declining social and economic
prospects for African-American males in particular. As a result of the
drug war and a host of harsh sentencing policies such as mandatory
minimums and "three strikes" laws, imprisonment has increasingly
become almost the norm in many low-income communities. If current
trends continue, 1 in 3 black males born today will spend time in a
state or federal prison in his lifetime.

These trends are exacerbated by the cruel intersection of
socioeconomic policy and criminal justice policy.

For young black men in the most disadvantaged schools, high dropout
rates become a pathway to prison, with more than half of black male
dropouts having been incarcerated by their mid-30s.

These outcomes contribute to a vicious cycle whereby incarceration
reduces future job prospects and earnings power.

In addition, there is an increasing spillover effect on families and
communities. In the nation's capital, neighborhoods most heavily
affected by imprisonment have only 62 adult men for every 100 women.

Some of these missing men are in the military or have suffered an
early death, but many are behind bars. Needless to say, women's
prospects for finding marriage and parenting partners are affected by
these dynamics.

In cities around the country, we find the same disturbing

While efforts to reform the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity have
previously been rebuffed by the administrations of both Bill Clinton
and George W. Bush, there may now be an opening for reconsideration on
Capitol Hill. Increasingly, there is a bipartisan recognition that not
only have the crack laws exacerbated racial disparity, they also
represent an inappropriate federal usurpation of state law-enforcement
priorities. To the extent that crack offenses are prosecuted in court,
it makes little sense to utilize federal resources for a primarily
low-level offender group.

In addition, there is increasing skepticism about whether these
mandatory sentencing policies have been effective in controlling the
supply of drugs.

Certainly, given trends in the price or availability of crack cocaine,
there is little evidence of this. Given these dynamics, not only are
liberal Democrats such as Representative Charles Rangel introducing
reform legislation, but Republican Senator Jeff Sessions has now
indicated his interest in addressing the disparity as well.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in the Bias case is that he did not in fact
die of a crack overdose, but rather from snorting powder cocaine.

Both drugs are dangerous, of course, but the tragic loss of a talented
young man on the brink of a limitless future has been callously used
to severely curtail opportunity for thousands of other promising young
people. This year is an appropriate time to change public policy to
better serve the next generation of black men.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake