Pubdate: Thu, 13 Dec 2007
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 Independent Media Institute
Author: Bill Piper
Note: Bill Piper is director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Referenced: How the Drug War Targets Black Americans
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


In the history of the civil rights movement there are probably only a 
handful of moments in which the decision of a few policymakers 
propelled significant change forward. Think of President Truman's 
decision to integrate the military or the U.S. Supreme Court's 
decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Our nation recently 
witnessed another such moment when the U.S. Sentencing Commission 
voted unanimously to apply recent sentencing reductions for crack 
cocaine offenses retroactively. Although the decision is only a 
partial step towards racial equality, it reunites thousands of 
families and sets the stage for Congress to enact major reform.

Predictably, Chicken Littles in the Bush administration have 
insinuated that 20,000 people will be released from prison tomorrow. 
That's just shock and awe. Retroactivity would actually be staggered 
over several decades, and the largest one-year release (possibly 
2,500 people in the first year) is a drop in the bucket compared to 
the 650,000 people released from state and federal prisons last year 
because they had served their time. Federal courts will also have the 
power to deny a sentencing reduction to people who pose a risk to society.

The Sentencing Commission's decision came only a day after the U.S. 
Supreme Court ruled that federal judges can sentence individuals 
below the guideline recommendation in crack cocaine cases. The 
combination of both rulings puts enormous pressure on Congress to 
change the statutory mandatory minimums that punish crack cocaine 
offenses 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. That 
sentencing disparity is responsible for appalling racial inequities 
in the criminal justice system. Although the majority of crack users 
and sellers are white, more than 80 percent of people incarcerated in 
federal prison for crack are black.

Ironically, the biggest obstacle to eliminating the crack/powder 
disparity is probably not the Bush administration or law enforcement 
but House Democratic leadership. While the Senate Judiciary Committee 
is set to debate three reforms bills early next year, no hearings 
have been scheduled yet in the House. Many rank-and-file Democrats 
support reform, but leadership is reportedly reluctant to even debate 
the issue. Their silence gives the impression they don't care about 
reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The struggle to bring some justice to federal cocaine laws is just 
one part of a bigger struggle to undo the damage being done by the 
war on drugs. In a recent op-ed in New Orleans' Times-Picayune, 
former ACLU Executive Director and current Drug Policy Alliance 
President Ira Glasser makes the case that drug prohibition is one of 
the major civil rights issues of our day.

. "[T]he racially discriminatory origin of most [drug] laws is 
reinforced by the disparate impact they have on racially targeted 
drug felons. In the states of the Deep South, 30 percent of black men 
are barred from voting because of felony convictions. But all of them 
are nonetheless counted as citizens for the purpose of determining 
congressional representation and electoral college votes. The last 
time something like this happened was during slavery, when 
three-fifths of slaves were counted in determining congressional 

. "Just as Jim Crow laws were a successor system to slavery in the 
attempt to keep blacks subjugated, so drug prohibition has become a 
successor system to Jim Crow laws in targeting black citizens, 
removing them from civil society and then barring them from the right 
to vote while using their bodies to enhance white political power in 
Congress and the electoral college."

The Sentencing Commission's decision is a good start in tearing down 
this new Jim Crow, but only Congress can repeal the laws that are the 
source of the problem.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake