More than two decades ago, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, making penalties for possession of crack-cocaine offenses 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine offenses. This glaring disparity has since become a defining symbol of the racism encoded in our criminal justice system. We treat crack—which is often found in low-income black communities—as if it were 100 times worse than powder cocaine—the kind more prevalent in white, wealthier communities.
Now, nearly 24 years later, Congress is finally revisiting the law. But instead of reverting to a 1:1 ratio—as scientific evidence and moral imperative demand—our legislators are heading toward a problematic compromise. In order to placate Republicans, the Senate has passed a bill changing the disparity to 18:1. Worse, the White House has endorsed the compromise, despite the Obama administration officials' earlier, vocal support for equalizing the sentences. At Color of Change, we—and more than 28,000 of our members—believe that it is essential to keep fighting, not just because there's still a chance to make this bill better, but also because of what this fight says about how our democracy should work.
For those unfamiliar with the crack/powder debate, its history is rooted in myths about the effects of crack that are now ingrained in the public consciousness. There is now wide agreement that treating two versions of the same drug differently makes no sense from a law enforcement or public health perspective. But the disparity in sentencing for crack and powder offenses continues to break up families around the country and contribute to the over-incarceration of black people. It's an ineffective policy that does nothing to stem addiction or reduce crime. Granted, there's more violent crime associated with crack, because the armed robberies and gunfights associated with the drug trade mostly happen at its low levels. But the kingpins who actually make big money from powder cocaine—which is cooked into crack by lower-level dealers—remain untouched, which would likely continue to be the case even if the disparity drops to 18:1.
The election of President Barack Obama gave hope to those who have fought to overturn the crack/powder disparity. Our optimism was further buoyed by Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, who as recently as this month said, "There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses, and I have strongly supported eliminating it to ensure our sentencing laws are tough, predictable and fair." But the attorney general's logic was no match for the politics of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. In addressing the committee on March 11, Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, justified maintaining some disparity by saying, "I have long believed that we need to bring greater balance and fairness to our drug sentencing laws. But I have also maintained that a guiding principle of that effort must be that we not place any obstacles in front of the police officers and prosecutors fighting every day to keep our communities and their residents safe." Bipartisanship at work.
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.