5 Things You Should Know About Crack

Decades after the feds copped their first hit, help is on the way.


Change is in the air, and I'm not talking about presidential politics. While the rest of the country obsesses over delegate math, black America would do well to pay closer attention to another vote count—how senators and members of Congress are lining up on the most serious effort to date to fix our unfair and deeply destructive sentencing code for federal drug crimes.

These hastily conceived but, thus far, implacable policies have arguably done more damage to our community than any law since Jim Crow's death. But this congressional session, more than 20 years after Washington copped its first hit of crack, legislators are meaningfully considering a much belated rewrite.

We should all be familiar with the depressing fallout by now. Forty percent of the 2.2 million people in prison or jail are black, 20 percent are Latino. At the current rate, one in three black men will spend time behind bars before they die.

Those are stunning facts, but equally gripping are the ones that make clear how the prison-industrial complex has ballooned with black bodies as a result of Washington's quixotic war on drugs. Since its opening salvos in the early 1980s, the national prison population has grown at a faster rate than ever, according to Justice Department stats—by nearly 700 percent. Take that in for a second, it's a doozy. Now consider this one as well: In 1980, just 25 percent of federal prisoners were locked up for drug charges; today, the number is larger by half than the entire prison population of 1980.

Over the last two decades, conservative thinkers have peddled pseudoscience and played upon white fantasies about urban America to rig the system and produce precisely these results. At the center of that effort sits a tripped-out federal rule that counts 1 gram of crack cocaine as the legal equivalent of 100 grams of powder, triggering a mandatory five years for crimes involving about a teaspoon of rock. It'd take about two cups of powder to get the same time.

Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission started rolling the boulder of reform up Capitol Hill. After studying the racial disparities, the Commission tweaked the formula that guides judges in handing out drug punishments. The Commission can't override the congressionally mandated 1-100 crack-to-powder disparity, but the changes it made are expected to reduce crack sentences by about two years. Moreover, amid much controversy, the Commission made the changes retroactive, potentially reducing sentences for about 20,000 offenders. The first batch became eligible to petition for reductions this month.

And that's got the Bush administration screaming bloody murder. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has begged Congress to reverse the rule change. He's argued that judges, overwhelmed with petitions, will shove violent offenders into the streets, presumably waving TEC-9's and tossing crack-filled glassines into schoolyards. Never mind that the Commission found that 90 percent of federal crack cases involved no violence. Or that judges have the ability to, well, adjudicate the difference between a killer and a wayward twentysomething.

"It'll be more of a burden, but we're talking about 1,600 cases this first year spread around the entire country," federal Judge Reggie Walton, who sentenced I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and has been an advocate of the Commission's change, told me in an interview. "It seems to me that if a decision has been made—as the Sentencing Commission concluded—that the disparity is fundamentally unfair, that just because I'm going to have to work a little harder as a judge to address that fundamental unfairness is not a sufficient reason for me to say that we shouldn't try."

But most observers believe Mukasey's real game is to slow the quickening pace of change. Following the Commission's move, several viable bills have popped up in both the House and the Senate that eye varying ways to reduce the crack-powder disparity and to ease mandatory minimum sentences. The Bushies are trying to frame the coming debate, as they have done so well on many issues.

So in the name of preparing us, too, for the long overdue discussion, here's my clip-and-save list of five things every black person ought to know about drug sentencing.