'Manifestly unjust sentences': WaPo calls on Congress to end the racist 'powder vs. crack disparity'
When the crack epidemic hit American cities during the 1980s, countless rappers — from KRS-1 to Ice-T to Public Enemy — warned of the drug’s dangers but also railed against the War on Drugs, which they viewed as both racist and classist. Those rappers viewed crack as a scourge, but they also had a problem with the fact that the penalties for smokable crack were much more severe than the penalties for powdered cocaine.
A variety of political figures also slammed the War on Drugs as bad policy, from the liberal Rev. Al Sharpton (now an MSNBC host) to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas (a right-wing libertarian). The War on Drugs encouraged mass incarceration, which made violent crime worse; prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia (a.k.a. la Éme) and the Aryan Brotherhood grew exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s when the War on Drugs greatly increased the number of prisoners in the United States — a country that per capita, locks up more of its people than any other country in the world.
In an editorial published by the Washington Post on September 15, the publication’s editorial board offers both good news and bad news. The good news: Many political figures have been rethinking the War on Drugs along with law enforcement officials. The bad news: There is still way too great a “disparity” between how powered cocaine is prosecuted and how smokable crack is prosecuted — a disparity that, according to the Post, is racist as well as classist.
“For decades after Congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act,” the Post’s editorial board explains, “one ratio illustrated the unfairness of the criminal justice system: 100 to 1. This ratio denoted the amount of powder cocaine that triggered mandatory minimum sentences, relative to crack cocaine. Distributing 500 grams of powder resulted in a five-year sentence — the same sentence for distributing a mere 5 grams of crack. This fueled racial disparities in sentencing, because Black Americans were disproportionately likely to be convicted of crack-related crimes.”
The editorial board continues, “The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced this disparity to 18 to 1, and the 2018 First Step Act made the change retroactive. This was an improvement, but the ratio still remained highly and unreasonably lopsided. Congress should finally bring the law into a sensible balance.”
The Post’s editorial board notes that “crack and powder cocaine” are “essentially two forms of the same substance.”
“Crack, a version of the drug that has been mixed with water and often baking soda, is smoked rather than snorted or injected,” the editorial board explains. “Though studies suggest White and Hispanic people have historically made up a majority of crack users, the drug has stereotypically been associated with Black communities, likely contributing to uneven enforcement: In 2019, 81 percent of those convicted on crack trafficking charges were Black, and just 5.3 percent were White.”
The board points out that the Equal Act, if passed by Congress, “would eliminate the powder vs. crack disparity” and “would apply retroactively, meaning currently incarcerated people would be eligible for reduced sentencing.”
“With thousands of people currently serving manifestly unjust sentences,” the Post’s editorial board argues, “lawmakers must not squander this opportunity for popular, common-sense and humane reform.”
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