March 14, 2010

Will Congress Maintain Racist Approach to Cocaine Laws?

Soulclap to for pointing out the opportunity that we have to apply political pressure to ensure that Congress does the right thing when it comes to sentencing guidelines for people caught with cocaine.

Thousands of the people currently in jail are victims of arcane and racist sentencing laws. People caught with crack cocaine -- often Black and poor -- are sentenced 100 times more harshly than those caught with powder cocaine. This is part of the reason that 1 in 15 Black adults is behind bars.

The U.S. Senate had a chance to advance a bill to eliminate the disparity. Instead, they chose to reduce it -- with no good reason other than to please “moderate” Democrats and Republicans. And President Obama, who for years has championed ending the disparity, is supporting the bill — apparently because it’s bipartisan. Can you think of any legitimate reason that the sentencing guidelines should be different between crack and powder cocaine?

This blog is joining with and other progressive bloggers in calling for our blog readers to take a moment to sign a letter to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding they show leadership and push for the House version of the bill, which would eliminate the sentencing disparity?

Today’s unfair sentencing laws treat five grams of crack cocaine the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine — a disparity of 100-to-1. Under the Senate’s plan, the laws would change to make 28 grams of crack trigger the same sentence as 500 grams of powder. As one journalist put it, the proposal would “make the law one-fifth as racist as it used to be.”

Here’s what New York defense attorney Gary G. Becker told the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, after the Senate Judiciary Committee moved to reduce, instead of eliminate, the disparity:

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote to “reduce” the crack cocaine/powder cocaine punishment disparity from 100:1 to 20:1 is a scandalous, racist, and politically motivated act. In view of the near-unanimous consensus that there is no justifiable basis for punishing crack cocaine more harshly than powder cocaine, and that the 100:1 ratio was both arbitrary and irrational — even [the] DOJ called for elimination of the disparity — the Senate Judiciary Committee settles on an equally unsupportable, irrational, and arbitrary punishment scheme, one that will disproportionately affect minorities, destroy families, and promote disrespect for the law.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last week, “There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses, and I have strongly supported eliminating it to ensure our sentencing laws are tough, predictable and fair.” Yet he went on to give his stamp of approval to the Senate’s 20:1 bill and urged Congress to approve it so it can be signed into law.

There is no disagreement that the current sentencing approach pulls non-violent drug offenders out of their communities for unreasonable lengths of time. And most of the committee members, who unanimously supported this plan, acknowledge that the disparity disproportionately affects Black communities.

This is politics at its worst. It’s legislation that harms communities instead of helping them — a direct result of political horse-trading that throws the most vulnerable among us under the bus.

Villagers have a chance to make it right. There’s a bill in the House that would completely eliminate the sentencing disparity. But if some Senators have their way and are able to quickly send their bill to the House, this diluted compromise could override the House’s bill — our only remaining chance at real reform.

Allowing that to happen would be disastrous. It will mean more broken families and more unequal justice. It will mean that instead of seizing an opportunity to help our communities, Congress and President Obama have decided to write a scaled-back form of discrimination into our laws.

Can you take a moment to tell President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to fight for passage of the House version of the bill? And when you do, please ask your family and friends to do the same.

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