Monday, August 17, 2009

Crack Laws Reformed



The drug wars will hopefully be getting some much needed reform soon. At the end of last month, the House Judiciary committee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing act of 2009.

This legislation eliminates the infamous 100-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, just five grams of cocaine were enough to land a person in prison for five years. In case you’re wondering, five grams is the equivalent of about two sugar packets.

Surprisingly though, the bill didn’t garner unanimous support in committee. In fact, it passed on a party line vote, 16-9. Ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said “this bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in ravaging human lives: It sends the message that Congress does not take drug crimes seriously.”

Please. There are plenty of ways to reduce the number of people doing crack. We can fund better education in schools to get youth to steer away from the drug. We can make more use of rehabilitation programs. And of course we can direct our law-enforcement resources against true drug kingpins. Years of draconian sentences against low-level drug users have not stopped the use of crack. In fact, the number of new users has increased with time. In 1986, there were 300,000 new users of crack; in 2000, the number was 361,000.

But five grams of crack does not a drug kingpin make. A person caught possessing five grams is more likely to be trying the drug for the first time, or an occasional user. Does such a person really deserve to be in prison for five years with rapists and murderers? Should he go to jail in the first place? The answer to both those questions is no.

What purpose does sending a crack user to prison for five years automatically serve? It can’t be to rehabilitate. No one who possesses five grams of crack requires that long to be rehabilitated. In fact, such a harsh sentence is counter-productive. The drug user will come out with a grudge against society, no ability to get a job or financial aid for college because he’s a felon, and substantial exposure to true criminal elements.

The only thing left for him as a practical matter is a life of crime—the very thing I thought Smith wants to stop.

It can’t be for incapacitation. A youth caught with two sugar packet’s worth of crack doesn’t need to be quarantined from society for five years. In fact, putting so many drug offenders in jail is a waste of resources that might be better used on dangerous criminals.

And it can’t even be for retribution. Punishment is supposed to fit the crime. But can anyone really believe that five years in prison for five grams of crack is anything other than cruel and disproportionate?

The only thing that could possibly justify these sentences is a desire for deterrence. But then it is incumbent on proponents of this disparity to show that the harsh sentences actually deter crack use which I have shown haven’t. Moreover, deterrence can’t be the only consideration in punishment. Otherwise, we could impose death sentences on people who drink underage to stamp out the problem.

This sentencing disparity should have been done away with long ago. It’s racially discriminatory. 80% of crack defendants are black, while whites tend to prefer powder cocaine. Add Hispanics to the mix, and some 96% of crack defendants are non-white. The result has been a huge surge in the number of minorities in prison.

That fuels a perception of racism in the communities most affected by the laws that strains relations between minorities and law enforcement at a time when crime really is a problem in many minority neighborhoods.

Truth be told, our approach needs more fundamental changes. Mandatory minimums and the idea of jail time for drug possession need to be reevaluated. Eliminating the disparity for crack and powder cocaine is a good first step on that journey.

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