Crack, powder and kicking butt in drug policy

By Michelle Chen Apr 29, 2009

After years of frustration under Reagan-era drug laws, a Senate subcommittee hearing today parsed the fine line between crack and powder. The notorious 100-to-1 gap between sentencing policies for powder and crack cocaine is a linchpin of the mandatory-sentencing structure that has driven racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The disparity stems much more from anti-drug political hysteria than from scientific fact, as research has undercut assumptions that crack is much more dangerous than powder cocaine. The law may finally be catching up to science. In his written testimony, Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice, indicated that President Obama has taken a more refined view of crack and powder. The administration, he stated, believes “Congress’s goal should be to completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine,” and that “vigorous drug interdiction must be complemented with a heavy focus on drug prevention and treatment.” Breuer stressed the subtle dynamic between law enforcement and communities:

“Public trust and confidence are essential elements of an effective criminal justice system – our laws and their enforcement must not only be fair, but they must also be perceived as fair. The perception of unfairness undermines governmental authority in the criminal justice process. It leads victims and witnesses of crime to think twice before cooperating with law enforcement, tempts jurors to ignore the law and facts when judging a criminal case, and draws the public into questioning the motives of governmental officials.”

It’s important to note that the crack-powder disparity itself is not the only problem underlying racial disproportionality and inequity in sentencing. In fiscal year 2008, about 81 percent of crack offenders were Black, 10 percent white. Whites made up about 16 of powder offenders. But more than 50 percent of powder offenders were Latino; roughly 37 percent were non-citizens. And although the gap in average sentence length narrowed in 2008—partially the result of 2007 amendments to the sentencing guidelines—Ricardo Hinojosa, acting chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, pointed out that this was also due to longer average sentences for people convicted of powder offenses. Hinojosa warned that “there is no evidence to justify” sentencing reforms that simply intensify powder sentences, rather than focusing on easing crack penalties. There was one person who couldn’t make it to the hearing, but perhaps made a bigger impression in her absence. Cedric Parker from Alton, Illinois came to testify for his sister Eugenia Jennings, who is now in federal prison for selling crack. Parker recounted Eugenia’s abusive childhood, her descent into addiction as a teenager, and finally, her rehabilitation and her ascent as an activist on women’s and youth issues—while she remains behind bars. Parker also presented the statement by the judge who handed the young mother of three her sentence in 2001. Judge Patrick Murphy’s words were apologetic:

“You never had anyone who stood up for you. All the government’s done is just kick your behind. When you were a child and you had been abused, the government wasn’t there. When your stepfather abused you, the government wasn’t there. When your stepbrother abused you, the government wasn’t there. But, when you get a little bit of crack, the government’s there…. At every turn in the road we failed you. And we didn’t come to you until it was time to kick your butt. That’s what the government has done for Eugenia Jennings.”

After more than twenty years of kicking people’s behinds with mandatory sentences, America is left with a bruised justice system and scarred communities. Each passing day in the war on drugs hurts a little bit worse. Image: / TEK