Barack Obama supports retroactivity in crack/powder cocaine sentencing, Hillary Clinton does not

I was thinking about what I would post for the Obama Blog-Out, and God sent Casey Thomas my way. Casey, president of the Dallas Branch of the NAACP, hipped me to an interesting column in the Dallas Morning News. See Marc Miller and Steven Chanenson‘s Op/Ed Bush can fix crack disparities.

In the column, Miller and Chanenson raise the issue of sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and power cocaine. Possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine activates mandatory sentencing, 5 years to be exact. By contrast, it takes 500 grams of power cocaine to receive he same sentence.

Though the authors of the opinion piece lobby President George W.Bush to use his clemency powers, the issue is finding its way into the Democratic Presidential Primary. Here are some of the highlights from the DMN column:

  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission is the expert body charged with studying federal sentencing. The commission has repeatedly told Congress about the race bias and irrationality of the 100-1 quantity triggers for federal crack versus powder cocaine drug penalties.
  • In this case, however, the commission tried to correct punishments that its expert analyses revealed were much too harsh and affected blacks unfairly. So the commission voted unanimously to give federal judges the power to apply the new crack rules retroactively.
  • The Justice Department claims that resolving these cases in court will be too time-consuming and is urging Congress to overrule the commission on retroactivity.
  • In a late 2000 interview, President Bill Clinton said “the disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine.” But his attorney general helped kill the commission’s 1995 proposal to eliminate the crack-cocaine disparity.

In December the John Roberts lead Supreme Court ruled that judges could set discretionary sentences in criminal cases like those involving crack distribution. The majority opined “a district judge in Virginia acted properly in April 2005 when he refused to follow federal sentencing guidelines calling for far harsher penalties for trafficking in crack cocaine than they do for dealing in the powder form of the drug.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, when the House Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Committee will hold hearings on the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. This follows similar hearings held by the Senate Crime and Drugs Subcommittee two weeks ago. Bipartisan support is growing in both chambers to address and hopefully eliminate this shameful reality of our “judicial” system.

Even though 2/3 of crack cocaine users are white, more than 80% of those convicted in federal court for crack cocaine offenses are African-American.

In a press release by the Drug Policy Alliance, director of national affairs Bill Piper says just that. The stars are aligning in such a way that it ‘s possible that Congress will eliminate or at least reduce the crack/powder disparity,” Piper says.

As an aside, the press release offers insight on crack that I must say I wasn’t fully aware of. Even though 2/3 of crack cocaine users are white, more than 80% of those convicted in federal court for crack cocaine offenses are African-American.

So we have two issues here; disparity and retroactivity. The disparity part is pretty evident, but whether or not those incarcerated under the unjust laws should be granted a reprieve by way of lessening their sentences (retroactively) is not so clear.

So what does that mean for the Presidential race? Barack Obama supports retroactivity and Hillary Clinton does not.

In a Democratic Presidential Debate held last December (that seems like ages ago), Clinton clearly stated her position. “In principle I have problems with retroactivity,” she said. “It’s something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well.”

Translation: I know that when I’m the Democratic nominee I will need to put forth an image of being tough on crime. Supporting retroactivity won’t help me accomplish that.

hillary-debate.jpgThat night, her 5 Democratic rivals all voiced their support of retroactive sentencing. Of course that included Senator Barack Obama. One of her supporters said after the aforementioned debate that “Rudy Giuliani is already going after the issue. He’s already starting to attack Democrats, claiming that (retroactivity) will release 20,000 convicted drug dealers.”

We’ve all seen this before. While my brothers and sisters were calling Bill Clinton “the first black President” he was locking black men up left and right to prove he wasn’t soft on crime. It’s much easier to pad your crime stats with low level hustlers slinging small amount of crack rocks than to go after the kingpins moving kilos of powdered cocaine. While convicted cocaine dealers walk the streets, the (mostly) black convicts who would be affected by retroactivity are used to prove a point.

As with the recent flap about NAFTA, Senator Clinton wants to take credit for the good things of the 90’s without acknowledging those things that were bad about her husband’s administration. The incarceration of black males was one of the worst, and she seems fine with keeping President Bush’s status quo.

obama-change.jpgSenator Obama has admitted that it will take more than retroactive sentencing to solve the problem of drug distribution in the African-American community.

But he has also acknowledged that retroactive sentencing is an important part of showing that the American Judicial System is working to balance its scales when it comes to the disparate treatment of crack/powder cocaine offenders. Justice must be preserved, even when its not politics as usual.

Sources for this post: Dallas Morning News, Drug Policy Alliance, Sentencing Law and Policy, Talk Left, Open Left


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