Equal justice

A law that narrows sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine should apply to everyone


In the nation’s long, costly, and practically futile war on drugs, severe sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine stand out as an egregious and misguided policy that was stoked by near-hysteria.

READ more Blade Editorials

Convinced, evidently, that crack cocaine was 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine, lawmakers in 1986 enacted a notorious 100:1 sentencing scheme that levied the same prison sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack as it did for 500 grams of powder.

A 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, restored some sanity to federal sentencing laws by narrowing considerably the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder. Unfortunately, the law did not spell out whether the new standards applied retroactively to people who were sentenced before it was enacted.

This month, however, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled correctly that offenders who were sentenced for crack cocaine violations before the 2010 law was enacted can be resentenced under the new law. The cleanest and best solution would be for Congress to amend the Fair Sentencing Act to make it fully retroactive.

Until then, the ruling by the appeals court opens the door for thousands of inmates to ask federal judges to shorten their prison sentences. It expands a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that applied the Fair Sentencing Act to people who committed crack cocaine crimes shortly before more lenient penalties took effect in 2010.

It’s time to undo fully these unjust and irrational sentences, which treated powder cocaine users — who were typically white and often affluent — far more leniently than the mostly black and poor users of crack cocaine. The appeals court ruled, properly, that letting these discriminatory sentences move forward was unconstitutional.

Crack cocaine, formed as a white or cream-colored crystal-like rock, is cheaper than powder and typically smoked instead of snorted or injected, delivering a quicker high. Both drugs come from the coca plant.

New research buttresses evidence that the 1980s “crack baby” scare, including overblown media coverage, exaggerated the dangers, which were said to include irreversible brain damage. It found little evidence of major long-term ill effects — attention deficits, anxiety, poor school performance — in children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy.

The research also concluded that even those more mild effects were probably caused by other conditions, such as poverty, family problems, violence, or other drug use. Many researchers now consider alcohol use more damaging to the unborn than cocaine. The findings included 27 studies of more than 5,000 11- to 17-year-olds in low-income, mostly black, and urban families.

Extreme disparities in crack and powder cocaine sentencing had plagued African-American communities for nearly 25 years. Those discriminatory sentencing practices violated the Constitution and had no basis in medical science.

Despite the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, thousands of inmates, mostly black, continue to suffer their consequences in prison. As the appeals court has ruled, the act should apply to all defendants, including those sentenced before its passage.

The most expedient way to make that happen is for Congress to make the Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive.