Unequal justice: how crack cocaine, incarceration and the breakdown of the family is hurting low income minority communities

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Darlene Eckles is a family woman — a hard working single mother. When her brother, newly homeless after breaking up with his girlfriend, approached her asking for a place to stay in 2002, she couldn't say no. She just gave him an ultimatum: "No drugs in my house."

She was taking college courses and working full time and it took a while before she realized there was a full-scale drug operation going on right under her nose. She came home one day to a table-full of cash. Her heart sunk. She knew where it came from.

"I'll help you count it," she said, "then I want you to get out."

But the discovery came too late. Police, who had been monitoring her brother for months, had conducted a controlled buy of 4 1/2 ounces of crack cocaine from her house. Though she never handled any drugs, she was indicted in a 37-person conspiracy and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

Darlene's mother, 73-year-old Betty Eckles tells the story in a matter-of-fact tone. She broke down and cried when the conviction went down in 2007, but since then she's tried to keep it together for Darlene's children, who she now cares for.

"This has changed all our lives," she said.

Darlene is one of more than 12,000 people in federal prison for crack-related crimes who are eligible to get out early as a result of a new law that reduced minimum sentencing requirements. Eighty-two percent of those imprisoned on crack cocaine charges, like Darlene, are African Americans. Black males are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than white males and 2.6 times higher than Hispanic males.

Minority advocates, who have argued for decades that harsh sentencing for crack cocaine contributed to the country's high rates of minority incarceration, lauded the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision last month to make the changes to the sentencing law retroactive. It's only a step in the right direction, though, in tackling the problem of minority incarceration, advocates say. Criminal justice experts are divided about the causes — and, therefore, the solution — to the high percentages of imprisoned minorities. Some point to socioeconomic problems like poverty, low education and the increase of fatherless homes. Others argue the system is riddled with racism, from the way police officers track crime to the way judges and juries apply sentences.

Minorities get longer sentences on average than their white counterparts, researchers say, and racial bias can also play into parole decisions. A Deseret News analysis of U.S. Department of Justice data revealed whites released from prison in 2010 served about 40 percent of their maximum sentences. Blacks served 50 percent. For violent crimes, that meant African Americans spent an average of more 12 months behind bars than whites. For all crimes, the difference was 5 months.

"If we want to solve this problem in our community, we have to stop locking everyone up," said Jeffrey Godwin, a magistrate judge in the 10th District Court of North Carolina. "Incarceration doesn't just affect that person. It doesn't just affect the immediate family of that person. It affects extended family members, who may be asked to care for children. It affects the entire community."

100 to 1

Since 1986, the penalties for possession of crack cocaine have been harsher than those for powder cocaine. Just five grams of crack cocaine — the weight of two pennies — could land a person behind bars for up to 20 years. A person could possess 100 times that much powder cocaine and receive the same sentence.

"At the time the law was passed, crack cocaine was the new drug on the scene," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that studies mass incarceration. "There were a lot of turf wars with a lot of violence involved. The misperception was that the drug made you more violent."

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