Crack the Disparity

May 5, 2009
Last week the Crack the Disparity Coalition held its second annual (and last) lobby day seeking to reform the egregious crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
The lobby day was a very exciting experience. We kicked off the day with speeches from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the lead sponsor one of the legislative options, Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, and Rabbi Saperstein, who delivered an inspirational and rousing speech that can be found here. There were people from across the country: community leaders, clergy, educators, and concerned citizens. They came and spoke to their Senators and Representatives about a foolish drug policy that has been a blemish on the American criminal justice system for over two decades.

For those unfamiliar with the problem, our current sentencing policy creates a 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  In practice, this means that for 5 grams (the weight of about 2 sugar packets) of crack, a person gets a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison. The trigger for that same 5-year sentence when it comes to powder cocaine is 500 grams (the weight of about 10 Mr. Goodbars). While there are countless reasons that this policy is foolish and ineffective, the most troubling statistic I have encountered is that while 1/3 of crack users are Black, they account for 81.8% of defendants (page 4 of this Sentencing Project report). Clearly, a policy with such severe racial implications ought to be addressed.

With an ever-booming prison population, it is crucial that we start taking a serious look at the failed War on Drugs and how we can and must reform our policy. Thankfully, the tide is shifting and, more and more, people and authorities are recognizing the importance of instilling justice and fairness into our drug policy. In the last week there have been editorials urging sentencing policy reform in the Philadelphia Inquirer (4/27), Huffington Post (4/28), New York Times (4/30) and Boston Globe (5/1) as well as calls from the Justice Department and President to eliminate the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity. (Time Magazine also had an interesting article last week that received a lot of buzz. It discussed the effectiveness of decriminalization in Portugal as a model for national drug reform).

As I mentioned before, this year was the second annual and last national lobby day crack reform because this year, we are going to win. We have been waiting 23 years and, as Rabbi Saperstein said: "Together we can, we must and we will succeed."

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