Will the Crack Cocaine Disparity Ever End?

A New Lecture: “Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama” by Dr. Algernon Austin

The simplistic idea that impoverished African Americans have only themselves to blame for their poverty, due to their poor cultural values—a notion advanced by many, including black public figures such as Bill Cosby—is believable only if a blind eye is turned to those inconvenient things social scientists like to call “facts.” Algernon Austin soundly refutes the “culture of poverty” argument by paying careful attention to marco-economic data about long-term poverty trends and sociological case studies about persistent discrimination. In other words, unlike the glib punditry, Austin actually looks at the “facts.”
--Dr. Andrew Hartman, professor and audience member, Illinois State University

Contact Dr. Austin to arrange a speaking engagement.

Maybe we are finally nearing the end of the racially-biased crack-versus-powder-cocaine sentencing disparity. Last week, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security took the first step toward the elimination of the crack-versus-powder disparity. The committee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act which would equalize the penalties for crack and powder. The Senate is expected to take the complimentary step in the near future.

When crack cocaine arrived in America's cities in the 1980s chaos ensued. There was violence as drug gangs fought over drug-dealing territory. There were new drug addicts doing a host of crazy and destructive things.

The new drug and its negative effects produced a general hysteria that affected criminal justice policy. In 1986, a promising young black basketball star, Len Bias, died from a drug overdose. In response, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which meted out extremely harsh punishment for crack possession. Anyone caught with 5 grams of crack--the equivalent of less than two packets of sugar--would be sentenced to five years in prison. In stark contrast, one has to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same punishment.

The 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine also produces a racial disparity in incarceration because blacks are much more likely to be caught in possession of crack than whites. Many thousands of blacks have received long prison sentences while they would have been treated much less harshly had they been in possession of powder cocaine. Of course, powder cocaine is what is used to make crack. Crack is 75 to 90 percent pure cocaine.

For more than a decade, we've known that there is a great deal of mythology around crack. Len Bias overdosed on powder cocaine, not crack. It is true that crack addicts are destructive, but so are other drug addicts. There is violence around crack, but that too is not unusual for illicit drugs. There was a great deal of gang violence during the Prohibition Era when alcohol was illegal. Today, as the Mexican drug gangs battle to control the Mexican-United States drug trade, we see a great deal of violence in Mexico and along the border.

The story about large numbers of severely damaged "crack babies" was also mythology. Of course, crack use by pregnant women is bad for babies, but it is about as harmful as tobacco consumption and less harmful than alcohol consumption. Tobacco and alcohol, however, are more commonly consumed by pregnant women than crack.

We've know all of this for many years, yet we still have the 100-to-1 disparity on the law books. What does it say about our society that we let thousands and thousands of blacks be punished so much more severely than whites for similar crimes. The good news is that it looks like, finally, our elected officials will do the right thing and treat crack and powder cocaine equally.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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