The New Law On U.s. Drug Policy Punishes Blacks More Than Whites

Posted: November 01, 1995

President Clinton signed prison legislation into law that will effectively keep minorities in prison for longer periods than other citizens guilty of

drug crimes.

In taking the action, Clinton aligned himself with congressional Republicans, who rejected recommendations by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lower the prison terms for offenses involving crack cocaine to make them the same as offenses involving powder cocaine. The sentencing commission is an independent agency established to design sentencing guidelines for the federal system.

Clinton said he was rejecting "dramatic reductions" in penalties for possessing and selling crack cocaine because trafficking in that drug "has had a devastating impact" on communities.

Powder cocaine also has played a role in the destruction of thousands of American families and hundreds of communities. Still the President and others see an enormous difference in the destruction caused by the sale and distribution of crack.

"I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down," Clinton said.

Thousands of prison inmates are locked in an emotional bond with one another because mandatory minimum sentences often provide punishment as severe for first-time crack dealers as they do for dealers caught dealing 100 times more of powder cocaine.

Inmates and their families are protesting sentencing guidelines that are racially discriminatory since crack is overwhelmingly associated with black dealers and powder cocaine is most often sold by whites.

The law will once again punish the poor more forcefully than it punishes others.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have deplored the disparity in sentencing between minorities and whites.

Donald Payne, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, yesterday characterized the U.S. drug policy as "a tale of two classes, one rich, the other poor.

"It was the U.S. Congress which created the sentencing commission in 1984 to allow criminal justice professionals to establish sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. Now, Congress has decided that it doesn't like the decision that the commission has made - after careful study and analysis - to equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine."

"Poor young kids who can afford only crack go to jail. Rich young kids who can afford powder go home and sleep in their own beds," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D., N.C.).

Still, the President sided with the Republican-controlled Congress, which adopted sentences calling for a mandatory minimum of five years for simple possession of more than five grams of crack by a first-time offender. Under the guidelines, simple first-time possession of powder cocaine is punishable by only one year in prison.

Trafficking in just five grams of crack cocaine brings the same punishment as trafficking in 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is a five-year mandatory minimum.

Those who deal in small doses of crack are often handed much stiffer sentences than high-level suppliers of powder cocaine. Crack is produced from powder cocaine after it is heated - or "cooked" as they say on the street.

However, arrests for sale of crack should not call for stronger sentences than arrests for the sale of powder cocaine.

Clinton believes that the way to proceed is to increase sentences for the distribution and sale of powder cocaine, rather than to reduce sentences for the sale of crack.

Several months ago, the sentencing commission urged Congress to equalize the base penalty for crack and cocaine. However, it called for increased sentences in cases where aggravating circumstances are involved.

While it has acknowledged that minorities, mainly African Americans and Hispanics, are unfairly victimized under the legislation just signed by Clinton, it stopped short of saying that racial bias is involved.

Clinton has ordered U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to "develop enforcement strategies" to go after powder cocaine distributors.

It's clear that the disparities in sentencing that irk so many inmates ought to be changed. Longer stays in prisons for minorities on the face of it are wrong. They deny the minorities equal protection under the law.

The double standard prevails all across the country because politicians seldom value logic when issues affecting elections come into play.

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