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What others say: End the cocaine disparity

Published: Monday, May 4 2009 12:12 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the Boston Globe:

In a powerful domestic declaration Wednesday, the Obama Justice Department came off the presidential fence on one of America's worst criminal statutes. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told a Senate judiciary panel that it was time to "completely eliminate" the vast federal sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.

For nearly a quarter century, a person selling crack cocaine received the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 100 times as much powdered cocaine. Congress originally feared crack was more addictive than powder, thus spawning far more violence. Medical and crime data debunked those notions by the early 1990s.

But fear of looking soft on crime permanently paralyzed Washington, even as the so-called war on drugs disproportionately filled jails with nonviolent street offenders while letting the kingpins slip by. And, though different racial groups consume illegal drugs roughly in proportion to their share of the population, the sentencing disparities — combined with other inequities such as the relative difficulty of arresting suburban cocaine users buffered by lawns and fences — resulted in African-Americans making up 82 percent of those convicted in 2006 for federal crack offenses.

In poignant testimony following Breuer's, Judge Reggie Walton, an African-American who was appointed to the federal judiciary by Ronald Reagan and rose up the ranks under George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, declared that "jails are loaded with people who look like me." The law created such mistrust that jurors often told him after trials that they could not convict, even if a defendant seemed guilty, because the mandatory sentence was so draconian.

None of this is news to close watchers of the courts, such as the activist Sentencing Project, the federal Sentencing Commission, and a growing bipartisan group of politicians. Asa Hutchinson, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas and former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an interview prior to his testimony that the disparities were the "No. 1 criminal justice issue."

But it was never No. 1 in the White House until this week. Obama criticized the laws as a candidate but also asked out loud: "Do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue?" His answer came Wednesday, as Breuer said: "There is no better place to start our work" on fairness than on the cocaine sentencing laws.

We agree. What's sad is that this did not happen until America had a president who can look into the jails and feel the sting of seeing how loaded they are with people who look just like him.

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