Cocaine Sentencing Long Overdue

There has been an ongoing debate about the sentencing differences handed out to those convicted of possessing crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. It was nearly 20 years ago when Congress passed and President Reagan signed sentencing laws for crack-cocaine possession that in retrospect many feel are overly punitive and racist.

The laws increased the penalties for the sale of crack cocaine so that a dealer with five grams of crack received the identical punishment to one who had 500 grams of powder cocaine, a disparity of 100-to-1. Congress also increased the penalty for simple possession of crack to five years. Prior to this, there was no distinctions between the punishment for powder and crack cocaine.

Civil rights leaders along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus have long argued, and rightfully so, that these laws disproportionately impact African Americans. They argue that laws stipulating harsher sentences for crack cocaine are racially biased because crack is more commonplace in the black community, while powder cocaine is used more often by whites.

On its face, it does appear to be an explicit example of racism that is designed to warehouse and permanently oppress black men. But the notion that this was the concoction of white racist legislators demands reexamination.

Crack cocaine burst onto the national scene in 1985 after the death of college basketball star Len Bias, when it was believed that he died from an overdose of crack cocaine--it was later discovered that Bias had in fact overdosed on the powdered form.

Almost overnight crack cocaine had become a household word, appearing in urban areas such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Oakland. It was less expensive to purchase than the powdered form, making it appealing in working class and poorer neighborhoods. Because of demand and the potential for profit there was also a spike in urban violence.

Traditional working class neighborhoods were being decimated, people were living in fear, and few had answers. It was a phenomenon of social upheaval in certain segments of urban American that was unprecedented. The public outcry, in this reactionary climate, prompted Congress to take action, enacting the current controversial laws.

Today, the sobering impact of these laws are hard to ignore. More than 80 percent of the defendants prosecuted for a crack offense are African-American. Ironically, more than two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic.

According to the US Sentencing Commission, 73 percent of crack defendants possessed low-level involvement in the drug trade, such as street-level dealers, couriers, or lookouts. Moreover, the commission found that crack cocaine sentences are the single most significant factor contributing to racial disparity in federal sentencing.

One could hardly taint those who advocate revisiting the disparities in the sentencing laws as soft on crime. This is an issue of justice and equality--pure and simple.

But the conspiratorial myths of right-wing racism are hard to maintain when the Congressional Record reveals bipartisan support for these laws, including within the Congressional Black Caucus.

Though not the sole reason, the unequal sentencing laws for crack cocaine have contributed to the socio-economic decline within portions of the African American community because of its impact on black males in particular. The current trend suggest that a black male child born today has a 1 in 3 chance of going to state or federal prison.

Such disheartening statistics impact lifetime earning potential, sustained poverty, and family stability. Anything that can be done to change the present course is long overdue. And the current sentencing laws for crack cocaine is a good place to start.

This was bad legislation supported by a reactionary congressional coalition that crossed party as well as racial lines. Whether or not the original intent of the law was racist does not change its impact. Hopefully, common sense and justice will ultimately prevail.

But 20 years later, a bad law that undermines any standard of equality remains in tact with little momentum for change.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.