Disparity for Cocaine Laws

The latest debate in Washington regarding drug laws is that former law was too strict when it comes to crack and cocaine. Actually, the message coming across is that laws that were set up in the past unfairly punished African Americans for possessing drugs.

The dispute began in 1986, when lawmakers decided that crack was more dangerous than powdered cocaine. At that time, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act set mandatory minimum sentences for those in possession of drugs. Crack, the drug often to blame for street violence in inner city neighborhoods, was given a minimum sentence of five years for possessing five grams of the substance. Powder cocaine, on the other hand, was only assigned a mandatory five years once 500 grams were possessed.

Racial Accusations

Because crack, the less expensive form of cocaine, is often used by African American males, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 put more blacks than whites in prison, and gave them longer sentences for their crimes. But it seems like a stretch to say that this law unfairly targeted African Americans. Crack, at the time, was the more dangerous drug; it was more closely connected to street-trafficking and gang violence, and it wreaked havoc on inner city neighborhoods. It was also becoming readily accessible to youth. Instead of accusing the signers of the 1980’s law of being racially motivated, we should consider the benefits of the law. For instance, the 1986 law attempted to keep crack dealers out of neighborhoods that had been devastated by the drug, and many African American youth and families directly benefited from the absence of crack users near their homes.

However, not everyone sees the old law in this light. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs even went as far as to say that revisiting the old law “demonstrates the glaring nature of what these penalties had done to people and how unfair they were.” But is it too callous to say that those that were dealing and possessing crack (black, white, Latino, or otherwise) broke the law, and therefore were rightly punished?

Law Reform Debate

In order to make this law more just in the eyes of opponents, the White House reformed the laws and relaxed the penalty for crack possession. Now, a person doesn’t get the mandatory sentence until they possess 28 grams of crack. However, the Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Obama on Tuesday, still allows for a disparity between crack and powder cocaine users, and is still being debated by many. Some argue that the punishment for crack is still too high and should be equal to that of powder cocaine. Some people still think that there are too many African Americans being locked up for drug dealing.

But others think mandatory minimum sentences in general are not helpful. Each case should be reviewed separately, and harsher punishments should be handed down to those that supply and deal the drugs. Most importantly, we need to look at the pros and cons of incarceration. Research has clearly shown that to stop the drug/prison cycle, you need to provide help and treatment for those convicted of drug abuse. Prison alone is not the answer. If someone is caught involved with a drug crime, punishment is most likely in order. But to get the person back into society someday, they need real treatment for their drug problem.

Sources

President Obama signs bill reducing gap in cocaine sentences

Race and the Drug Laws

A step toward racial fairness in cocaine penalties