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.
But, in his case, the greater irony may be that Radel has also been an outspoken supporter of drug testing for beneficiaries of food stamps—the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program known as SNAP. As recently as March 2013, he voted in support of the Welfare Integrity Act and an amendment to a farm bill that asked program beneficiaries to waive their Fourth Amendment rights and pass random drug tests to get benefits.
Never mind that in Radel’s home state, welfare drug testing has proven ineffective. The primary purpose has been to draw artificial distinctions between “them” and “us,” perpetuating stereotypes of lower-income individuals as lazy, addicted and black.
Which is all pretty convenient for Radel. His race and congressional status allow him to play the role of loving husband and well-meaning politician who’ll now head to rehab “to get the help” that he needs. But if he’d been Mayor Barry or another person of color, odds are Radel would soon find himself behind bars. And if his family needed assistance to survive, they might find their SNAP benefits denied.
He might also find himself as a (swiftly) former congressman without the right to vote, given that 8 percent of voting-age African Americans are disenfranchised due to their felony convictions. Lucky for him, he got busted in D.C. and not Florida, where the same amount of cocaine would have gotten him charged with a felony.
The solution isn’t to put Radel in jail or to lock more people up for nonviolent drug offenses. As Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) told Sirius/XM's Joe Madison on Thursday, Radel now has the chance to "get well" in rehab and "that same attitude should be applied to everyone who is arrested for addictions."
But the story is another reminder of how, every day, it pays to be white in the criminal justice system.
Theresa Sullivan is the staff assistant at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.