President Obama Narrows Racial Gap in Drug Sentencing

But black crack cocaine sellers and dealers will still be punished more harshly than whites trafficking in powder cocaine.

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During a White House interview, I once asked President Clinton about this racially biased 100:1 cocaine sentencing disparity he had approved. "The situation that exists is unfair, unjustifiable and should be changed," he said. Yet Clinton found no way to change it when he was in the White House. Instead, he resorted inanely to petitioning the incoming Bush administration to correct this policy of racial bias.

The majority opinion of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg denounced the shaky foundation upon which Congress drafted the '86 bill. It was based upon the false assumptions, for example, that crack offenders were more likely to be violent, that crack was significantly more dangerous and addictive than powder, and that "crack use was especially prevalent among teenagers."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission had already concluded that "crack cocaine has not caused the damage that the Justice Department alleges it has." Also, credible medical researchers and criminal justice experts have firmly established that there is no appreciable difference between the effects of crack and powder cocaine use, and the majority of those trafficking in both forms of the drug are nonviolent.

Yet, even though blacks make up less than a quarter of crack users, some 85 percent of convicted federal crack offenders are black. The racial disparity starts with the arresting officer long before the federal judges peer down at crack offenders they still feel mandated to punish 18 times more severely than someone caught with powder.

The Fair Sentencing Act is not fair. It should be made retroactive, and crack offenders should be punished the same as those convicted of abusing powder cocaine.

Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a frequent contributor to The Root.

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