Your Take: No Compromise on Sentencing Disparities
Everyone agrees the difference in punishment for crack and cocaine makes no sense. So why settle for less than zero, asks the leader of Color of Change.
That Sessions and his 18:1 compromise are wrong has been ably explained by many, ranging from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the New York Times editorial board. But, of course, the question in politics is never what is right, but what is possible. And many people--including our allies--think this is the best legislative deal we are going to get. They may be right. But the House isn't expected to act until after its members return from spring recess next month. And until that time, thousands of Color of Change members will continue to fight. More than 28,000 have signed a petition calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama to push Congress to pass a 1:1 bill, and hundreds have placed calls to Speaker Pelosi's office. For inspiration, we look to the recent victory on health care reform. When Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to the Senate, many Democrats wanted to roll the bill way back and toss aside its most meaningful elements. Others wanted to fight, and this week we celebrated their victory.
But even if 18:1 does become the law of the land, it matters what we say along the way. How do we keep fighting in the future if we don't call out the illegitimacy of 18:1 now? How do we plan to keep pushing for 1:1, so that we're not forever stuck at this compromise ratio? What options do we leave ourselves if we claim victory now and walk away? If the racial-justice community accepts 18:1 without a fight, we're inadvertently applauding the political horse-trading that is too often at the center of lawmaking in Washington.
The Senate's compromise is still racially discriminatory and morally wrong, and we have yet to hear anyone explain why a disparity is necessary. It's time for those of us who care about this issue to force Sen. Sessions and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.,--the architects of the compromise--to offer an explanation that actually holds water. If Jeff Sessions really wants to argue that 18:1 is better for our country, we should create a media stir that requires him to defend that position in public. And if the explanation doesn't pass muster, if it doesn't appear to be in line with our communities' interests, we have to say so.
We understand that compromise is sometimes necessary, and we agree with our allies that some level of sentencing relief is better than none. But we can't afford to fold before the final hand has been played, and we shouldn't be negotiating from a position of weakness. That's how we ended up with an 18:1 compromise in the first place versus 10:1 or a 5:1. Real change--on ending this sentencing disparity and on other policy issues important to our communities--depends on our willingness to shine a light on backroom deals and apply grassroots energy to hold our elected officials accountable. That's the way democracy is supposed to work, and our responsibility to raise our voices in protest is not something we should ever compromise.
James Rucker is the executive director of Color of Change, an online community of more than 600,000 people dedicated to amplifying the political voice of black America.