Something that many (including me) usually don’t think about, are the ways in which the law is applied to drug and drug-related crimes. Since the majority of us are not touched in any easily recognizable way by it, we put it at the back of our minds, and don’t think much of it.
One of the problems is that some crimes are punished in very unfair ways, and we need to be awakened periodically, so that we can call upon those who change laws to do just that.
So it is with the difference between forms of cocaine, powdered and crack. The two forms have identical active ingredients, and both are deleterious to the body in common, street usage. But when someone uses crack, they are doing so because they are able to put up only minor money for their poison, whereas the more affluent can get the stuff that looks much more innocent – to the casual onlooker as well as to the application of the law. The disparities for the punishment for use of the different physical forms are great, and are just now beginning to be changed.
Congress passed a bill on Wednesday that would reduce the disparities between mandatory sentences for crack and powdered cocaine violations, a step toward ending what legal experts say have been unfairly harsh punishments imposed mainly on blacks.
The bill, which passed the Senate in March, was adopted by the House of Representatives in a voice vote and now goes to the President for signature.
Administration officials have described the sentencing disparity as “fundamentally unfair,” and Mr. Obama said during the 2008 campaign that it “disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users.”
Under the current law, adopted in 1986 after a surge in crack smoking and drug-related murders, someone convicted of possession of five grams of crack must be sentenced to at least five years in prison, and possession of 10 grams requires a 10-year minimum sentence. With powdered cocaine, the threshold amounts for those mandatory sentences are 100 times as high.
In the bill passed on Wednesday, the amount of crack that would invoke a five-year minimum sentence is raised to 28 grams, said to be roughly the amount a dealer might carry, and for a 10-year sentence, 280 grams.
While crack use has declined since the 1980s, arrests remain common, and some 80 percent of those convicted on crack charges in recent years have been black. A growing number of criminologists have concluded that the sentencing disparity is unjustified, and has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to lengthy prison terms while offering more lenient punishment to users and sellers of powdered cocaine, who are more often white.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that under the new law, shorter sentences for possessors of small amounts of crack would save the federal prison system about $42 million over the next five years.
While no drug use is good, I believe we violate individual rights with many (if not all) of the current drug laws, and it is good to see at least some parity in the application, even if there seems to be no hope for their repeal.
In a beautiful synergy, the savings of federal dollars, coming with the equality of punishment under the law makes me wonder why the powers in Washington don’t make the logical connection that removing drugs from the lists of crimes, and treating the use of drugs as a mental illness (because that is what it is) would free up more space in prisons, result in fewer police shootouts, raids, and other problems, and save the government so much money and man-hours that we could begin to retire a lot more of the current national debt.
And sometimes, the application of fire to current laws would be a great idea…