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.

President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act. (Getty Images)
President Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act. (Getty Images)

Contrary to law-enforcement assumptions, some 24 percent of crack cocaine users were reportedly black, and 72 percent were Latino or white, according to a statistical study of 198 counties comprising more than 50 percent of the nation’s population. Yet, the Justice Policy Institute says, “More than 80 percent of defendants sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were African Americans.”

Furthermore, the institute revealed a national disparity in incarceration rates for drugs overall, despite a pattern showing no appreciable difference between whites and blacks in illegal-drug possession, use and sale. Some 8.5 percent of whites were found to use illicit drugs in ’02, compared with 9.7 percent for blacks. Despite this similarity, blacks, the report found, were “admitted to prison for drug offenses (at) nearly 10 times the rate for whites.”

When signing the omnibus crime bill in his first term, President Clinton left the 100:1 ratio intact, despite the staggering numbers of blacks being hauled off to prisons.

This crackdown on young, first-time, nonviolent offenders during the Clinton years was devastating. Black juveniles charged during that period jumped to 535,500 in 2000 from 456,072 in 1992. During the same period, black adults in the criminal justice system increased by 276,700 to 2,149,900, most of them drug offenders.

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.