A week before Christmas in 2013, President Obama sent a modest shot across the bow of the harmful, wasteful and grotesquely racially-biased drug sentencing laws when he granted clemency to eight, mostly low-level drug offenders. Obama essentially followed a lead that then Attorney General Eric Holder took when he virtually ordered U.S. attorneys to take a hard look at who they are prosecuting and why for drug crimes. Holder minced no words in stating the obvious. The overwhelming majority of those prosecuted are mostly poor, blacks and Hispanics, for low-level, petty dealing and use. In legions of cases, those offenders were slapped with draconian sentences of 10 or more years with little prospect of parole. A clearly incensed President Obama made clear it was long past time for a change. Congress had taken one step in that direction when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act. The Supreme Court had also done its bit earlier by chopping down the sentence of a convicted cocaine peddler.
Obama doubled down on that first big step he took two years with his grant of clemency to 46 offenders who for the most part were behind bars for drug crimes. Their prospects of getting out without the President's intervention would have been slim to none. The scorecard for the Obama administration on clemency for low level offenders, for the most part related to drugs, is up to 90. Almost certainly there will be many more. He'll drive the point home about the over incarceration of petty offenders with his presidential groundbreaking visit to a federal pen in Oklahoma. Obama's actions mean heart-lifting news for the offenders and their families, and it's great news for a nation that has acquiesced far too long in the thoroughly debunked notion that the nation can incarcerate its way out of the drug morass. Yet as Obama certainly knows there's still much to be done to dig out of it.
That's because though the drug sentencing racial disparities certainly are a national embarrassment, they are still on the books. They continue to wreak dire havoc in mostly poor black communities, as well as cast an ugly glare on the failed and flawed war on drugs. Countless studies have shown that blacks make up the overwhelming majority of those sentenced in federal court for crack cocaine use and sale. Contrary to popular myth and drug warrior propaganda, more than half of crack users are white, and presumably a good portion of them are crack dealers as well. But it's the heart-wrenching tales of the legions of poor young men and women that have received sentences totaling decades behind bars for the possession or sale of a pittance of cocaine or marijuana. In many cases, they are young mothers and fathers who out of poverty and desperation resorted to the use and sale of drugs. The end result of the bloated, grotesque drug war is that the U.S., with five percent of the planet's population, has nearly 25 percent of its inmates.
Federal prosecutors and lawmakers in times past and in far too many cases today justify the racial disparity in drug jailing with the retort that crack cocaine is dangerous and threatening, and leads to waves of gang shoot-outs, turf battles and thousands of terrorized residents in poor black communities. In some instances, that's true, and police and prosecutors are right to hit back hard at the violence. However, the majority of those who deal and use crack cocaine aren't violence-prone gang members, but poor, and increasingly female, young blacks. They clearly need help, not jailing.
The drug warriors have and will continue to resist any effort to scrap the blatant and deliberate racial disparity in drug sentencing laws. In an odd way, they have to take their hard stand. The public scapegoating of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. A frank admission that the laws are biased and unfair, and have not done much to combat the drug plague, would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real soul searching over whether all the billions of dollars that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war -- the lives ruined by it, and the families torn apart by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws -- has really accomplished anything.
This might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place -- and if it is really the government's business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others?
Obama took yet another giant step on the path to fair and equitable drug enforcement and treatment with his mass clemency grants and prison visit. But make no mistake, it's a step that many more must take before we'll ever attain real and lasting drug sentencing reforms in America.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.