A Crack in ‘Affluenza’ Justice

President Obama’s decision to commute eight sentences is a first step toward righting inequality in our justice system.

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President Obama announced on Thursday that he will be commuting the sentences of eight crack-cocaine offenders who were given extremely lengthy prison terms basically for being black and possessing a drug whose users are incorrectly perceived to be majority black.

We can stammer around the issue, but ever since crack cocaine entered urban cities during the 1980s, the war on drugs has really been a war on black skin. Scores of black, mostly male, faces were sent to prison as the drug ravished the community as well as individuals and families.

Prisons were overflowing with first-time offenders: Possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine at that time yielded a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence, while it would have taken 500 grams of powder cocaine to prompt the same time. To put this in simpler terms, a portion of crack roughly the size of a pair of dice was five years in prison. Straight, no chaser. (Today it takes 28 grams of crack cocaine to yield a five-year sentence.)

Guess who was more likely to use which version of the same drug.

This is the reason the case of Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old drunk driver who killed four innocent people and is slated to serve no jail time at all, feels like such a miscarriage of justice.

This is why there is community outrage from blacks who see this happen all too often and, despite the unfair doling out of punishment, still believe in a justice system that shows little belief in us. Missteps or misfortune in the black community don’t allow for adjustments, apologies or rehabilitation. We are thrown the book, as heavy as that book might be, and we are unfairly and unflinchingly punished for our faults.

It is justified outrage, considering that African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2010 census data, but black men are estimated to make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. Or, as Michelle Alexander put it in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “There are more African American men in prison and jail, or on probation and parole, than were slaves before the start of the Civil War.”

So the timing of President Obama’s commutation of these unfairly lengthy punishments isn’t lost on those who note that prosecutors are currently begging the judge to throw Couch in prison.

The Couch defense: “affluenza”—a term coined to describe the burden and lack of consequences associated with wealth. His punishment: 10 years’ probation and a posh stay in a residential facility that believes in horseback riding and massage as therapy.

And then there is Clarence Aaron, who, in 1993, was a 23-year-old college student who introduced two participants in a drug buy. His payment for making the introduction: $1,500. His sentence: three life terms.

Thanks to the president some 20 years after his conviction, Aaron will soon be a free man. My question is, now that he is free, what is left for him to become?

Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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