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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."

Numerous studies over the past 20 years have proven that crack cocaine affects the body no differently than powder cocaine, she said, ultimately leading to Congress's decision in 2010 to change the penalties. Now, crack and powder are compared at a ratio of 18-1.

In the meantime, though, the harsh policy hit minorities harder than whites because crack cocaine was much cheaper than powder cocaine, Gotsch said. Impoverished minorities--particularly those who lived in inner city, predominately African American communities--found they could double their money by mixing a small amount of powder cocaine with baby laxative or other derivatives. The mixture was then boiled down to crystals that were cracked into pieces and smoked. Upper income whites tended to favor snorting powder cocaine.

"It all came down to poverty," she said. "Poor minorities were attracted to crack because of the income potential."

The decision to revise the crack cocaine punishment is a "first step" in addressing the disproportionate numbers of minorities in the U.S. prison system, Gotsch said. But "it doesn't begin to touch the root causes of the issue."

At a disadvantage

Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, blames minority incarceration rates on a "civilization collapse" — not on unfair crack-cocaine sentencing practices.

"There's no expectation on young black boys that they will marry the mother of the children they conceive," she said. "You have young boys growing up without fathers, who don't learn the need for self-discipline and deferred gratification. You have whole communities where the institution of marriage has completely disappeared."

In 2009, less than 35 percent of black children lived in homes with two married parents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Seventy-two percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers. By comparison, 53 percent of Hispanic babies and 29 percent of white babies are born out of wedlock.

A study by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services found only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families where the biological mother and father are married to each other. Thirty-three percent come from families where the parents have divorced. Forty-four percent have parents who were never married. The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University both found young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families — even when other factors like race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.

"Something about not having a father in the picture seems to make at least certain types of boys more likely to engage in aggressive violent behavior," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "The theory is, they are trying to signal to others they are a man. If they don't have a good model in the household, they are more likely to embrace what they see on TV or what they see their friends doing."

Mac Donald believes the incarceration rates reflect crime rates. Changing the crack cocaine sentencing law will not change the fact that America jails more of its minorities than any other country in the world, she said. A few thousand people face crack charges each year. Federal prisons house several hundred thousand black men.

"A huge amount of attention has been given to the crack disparities but they are a very, very insignificant part of the problem," she said. "If you want to get incarceration rates down, you have to start talking about marriage and families."

A matter of race

Jeffrey Godwin, a magistrate judge in the 10th District Court of North Carolina and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Liberty and Caplan Universities Godwin, agrees that the deteriorating state of the family has fueled delinquent behavior among minority youths. But, the way he sees it, the growing number of fatherless homes in black communities can't be separated from a legacy of racism and sky-high minority incarceration rates. It's a chicken-or-the-egg argument.

The war on drugs sent disproportionate numbers of minorities to prison, taking them away from their families, he said. Segregation means blacks and Hispanics are more likely to attend inferior schools, which leaves them unprepared to compete in a modern job market where middle-class industrial work has all but disappeared. Women don't want to marry men who can't provide for their families. Welfare laws create a financial incentive for poor mothers to stay single.

"There's a hidden cost to incarceration," Godwin said. "If a father is incarcerated, that's going to have a big impact on a child's life. When that child grows up, he's thinking, 'Daddy's in prison, Momma's struggling to keep us alive. What can I do to get us out of this situation?' It seems like it's worth the risk to sell a little drugs."

Police also target minorities, he said, through enforcement strategies. While studies have shown crime to be equally distributed among all ethnic backgrounds, he said, minorities tend to live in more densely populated neighborhoods where property is cheap. Because people are less spread out, on a crime map, such neighborhoods look "hot."

"More minorities get locked up because they are easy prey," Godwin said. "It's a lot easier to do an undercover operation in a ghetto, where people are doing business out on the street. A Caucasian person is going to be using a middle man in an in-home situation."

Becky Eckles isn't sure why her son turned to drug dealing and dragged the whole family down with him. Was it because he grew up without a father? She can't say. She can't say if racism played into the court's decision to lock her daughter away for two decades. She's just hoping, praying for a brighter future for her little grandson.

"He needs his momma," she said. "He just needs his momma."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com

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