Saturday, March 20, 2010

race and mythology in drug laws

NYTimes | Congress is trying to undo some of the damage it inflicted more than two decades ago with its frenzied mandating of longer prison sentences for abusers of crack cocaine than for those who abuse the powder version.

The result has been disproportionately harsher punishment for crack offenders in black neigborhoods.

The law is built on a scientifically indefensible 100-to-1 ratio, which means the same prison term (a minimum of five years) for 5 ounces of crack as for 500 ounces of the powder kind.

A compromise reform of the law approved this week by the Senate would repeal mandated sentences for simple possession and reduce the ratio to 18-to-1 for trafficking in crack versus powder cocaine.

This standard is still irrational, if significantly less so than current law. It’s imperative for the House to fight for the 1-to-1 ratio when it takes up the issue. Otherwise, the law will remain tinged with racism even if relative harshness is cut back.

The sentencing disparity was enacted amid a wave of crack use and hyperbolic warnings that crack — cocaine cooked in baking soda — was more addictive than powder cocaine.

That has since been disproved by scientific studies. That hasn’t stopped tens of thousands from being sentenced unfairly under the skewed law. Recent studies showed that while blacks make up 30 percent of crack users, they compose more than 80 percent of those convicted under the federal law.

After pressing for the 1-to-1 ratio, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, says he accepted the 18-to-1 compromise with Republican opponents because it is the best available chance to “ensure that every year thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system.”

The senator can be commended for his efforts. Now it’s up to the House to totally end the disparity and the severe injustice it has wrought.