THE BLOG

Crack Law: Not only Cruel and Racist, But Scientifically Wrong

05/12/2010 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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For years, those concerned with fairness in America have been distressed by the alarming racial disparities seen in the criminal justice system. Currently, one in eight young African American men are under criminal justice supervision--either in prison, on parole or on probation--and black men serve almost as much time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses (58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (61.7 months).

One major cause of these disparities is a profoundly stupid mandatory federal sentencing scheme instituted in the 1980's during the national panic over crack cocaine. Under these laws, possession or sale of crack results in a mandatory sentence 100 times greater than that someone would receive for selling or possessing the same amount of powder cocaine.

Now, our "bipartisan" Senate has come up with a "compromise" to reduce the disparity: instead of 100 times greater, the sentences for crack under the new law will be only 20 times longer. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it on the Atlantic, the new disparity is only "one fifth as racist as it used to be."

What's really idiotic is that if you wanted to demonize the more dangerous drug with harsher penalties, powder is the one you should go after. The assumption in the law is that powder is "safer" because it is snorted, rather than smoked.

But the fact is that the most deadly way to use cocaine is to inject it--something that is chemically impossible with crack unless you first convert it into powder. The "high" from injecting is also every bit as intense as the crack high.

Moreover, injecting powder cocaine puts one at higher risk of overdose and carries even greater risk of spreading HIV than smoking crack does. So, if the purpose of longer sentences is to "send a message" about risk, even that isn't accomplished by these absurd laws.

What they accomplish instead is the ongoing destruction of black families and communities--failing to prevent drug use, dealing or addiction, tearing parents and children apart and costing everyone a fortune.

Is it better for the disparity to become 20 to 1 rather than 100 to 1? Sure. But what would save families, communities and money would be to scrap mandatory sentencing entirely and spend the money formerly used for incarceration on treatment and education.