AUGUST 11, 2010
In an ongoing effort to end racial discrimination, President Obama has proudly signed a new law that for the first time in decades relaxes drug-crime sentences he claims discriminate against minority offenders.
The measure severely weakens a decades-old law enacted during the infamous crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged urban communities nationwide in the 1980s. It set a mandatory five-year sentence for trafficking offenses involving more than five grams of the drug. The new measure (Fair Sentencing Act) increases the amount of crack from five grams to 28 grams for a five-year sentence and eliminates mandatory prison for first-time offenders.
Congress’s rationale for reducing crack sentences is a simple one that is shared by the commander-in-chief; a disproportionate number of blacks are being punished. The legislative and executive branches claim that the sentencing discrepancy between crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine created a huge racial disparity because most crack defendants are black and most powder cocaine defendants are Hispanic and white.
To get a five-year prison sentence, a defendant convicted of a cocaine powder offense must possess 500 grams. Because the drug is more expensive, mostly whites and Hispanics commit powder-related crimes and they get off much easier than their black counterparts, according to the president and federal lawmakers who slashed the crack penalties.
The tough crack law was passed 25 years ago because serious violence typically accompanied the drug’s rampant use during an epidemic that slammed the country and destroyed large chunks of mostly poor, urban neighborhoods. Decades later, it hasn’t changed. In fact, U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics show that nearly 30% of all crack cases in the last year involved a weapon compared to 16% for powder coke.
This indicates that a better course of action would have been to instead close the disparity by raising the penalties for powder cocaine rather than lower them for crack, according to a nation’s largest law enforcement labor group. The enhanced punishments for crack have proven useful, says the group’s director, who assures they have been a “valuable tool in protecting innocent people from violence in crack-ridden areas.”
One of the few legislators who voted against relaxing crack penalties, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of
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