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Oh, SNAP! Trey Radel, Cocaine and Racial Double Standards

Busted for coke, Rep. Radel keeps his job, a reminder that it pays to be white in the criminal justice system.

Rep. Trey Radel

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) is now no stranger to the justice system.

On Wednesday afternoon, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor cocaine possession charge and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. And by Wednesday night, in front of TV cameras, he was saying, “I’m sorry” at a hastily called press conference to announce a “leave of absence” from Congress.

But was this actually justice? Not really.

He’s only the second sitting member of Congress to be charged with a drug crime—and his plea bargain means his actions weren’t consequence-free—but Radel’s easy sentence illustrates the sorry state of race and drug sentencing in America.

Rates for drug usage, sales and possession are roughly the same across races, but blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested, charged and incarcerated for drug-law offenses. But despite parity in drug usage, African Americans make up 45 percent (pdf) of those behind bars for drug violations, while representing only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Even before mandatory-minimum sentencing, average federal drug sentences were 11 percent higher for blacks than for whites. And after mandatory minimums were instituted, that disparity increased to an appalling 49 percent.

Even with the steps outlined by Attorney General Eric Holder this summer to alter “draconian mandatory minimums,” America’s a long way off from parity and justice in sentencing.

Radel, who’s white, didn’t get off scot-free. But compare his case with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, also white, who recently admitted to smoking crack, and has so far avoided criminal charges altogether.

Then contrast their cases with the 1990 undercover bust operation on black D.C. Mayor Marion Barry—who was videotaped by the FBI smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room, then sentenced to six months in federal prison.

And Mayor Ford notwithstanding, it’s worth noting the crack-versus-powder-cocaine sentencing disparities that debuted in the 1980s, and now play into Radel’s lenient sentencing. In the so-called war on drugs, an individual caught with one gram of crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone with 100 grams of the powdered form. So, while cocaine use between races is relatively even, because African Americans have been more likely to have access to crack, the ratio has resulted in a much higher proportion of blacks being incarcerated—and for significantly longer periods of time—than their white counterparts.

It’s the double standard explained by legal scholar Michelle Alexander as “the new Jim Crow.” And while that disparity has been reduced by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, note that Radel won’t be serving any time behind bars.