Obama’s Fair Sentencing Act: A landmark for judicial reform
Crack closer to powder
“More than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are now known to be false—for example, that crack offenders were more likely to be violent, or that crack was significantly more dangerous and addictive than powder—heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses were adopted. Those penalties required 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to invoke equal mandatory minimum sentences. The impact of the disparity fell disproportionately on African-Americans.”
—Hector Villagra, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California
President Barack Obama’s approval August 3rd of legislation reducing the wide gap between legal penalties for possession of “crack” cocaine versus the powdered variety, generated applause across the country especially within the Black community. Officially known as S. 1789: The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, this bill is an affirmation of opinions long expressed by advocacy groups and experts in the legal and health fields.
Powdered cocaine, properly called cocaine hydrochloride, is generally snorted through the nose, and is commonly associated with White consumers, carrying a prison sentence of five years for possession of 500 grams (slightly more than a pound). Crack (which has been processed to remove the hydrochloride, making it a more potent, purified intoxicant that can be smoked) carried the same penalty for a mere five grams, and is the foundation for arguments that the justice system unfairly targets African American and other minorities, who are more likely to indulge in this cheaper and more accessible alternative.
Jasmine Tyler became interested in the issue of narcotics legislation as a child, as she shared with Our Weekly in an interview: “I grew up visiting my dad in prison and noticed at an early age that the prisons were populated by mostly African Americans. I found that curious, but it wasn’t until I was older that I understood how African Americans had been hyper-criminalized after Emancipation and that it continued through today.”
This awakening of consciousness informed her educational pursuits and transition into a career as a sentencing advocate, including the last 3 1/2 years as Deputy Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Tyler suggests that this latest reversal of a decade’s old legal precedent may be the harbinger of a new era in policy reform. Many of our present draconian laws came about in the wake of the crack cocaine infestation of the early to mid 1980s because of the mythology that emerged around this phenomenon. This was partially spread by media organs eager to post sensationalized headlines (particularly in the two hubs of media distribution—Los Angeles and New York), which in turn were seized by policy makers as an in to secure public funding.
This media frenzy contributed to an atmosphere that prompted lawmakers to pass especially harsh legislation, culminating in a legal panic that paralleled the media focus held by crack from 1985 through 1990, punctuated by advertisements like the fried egg analogy: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign that supplemented her husband’s War on Drugs.
More recently, passage of the Fair Sentencing Act involved a concerted bi-partisan effort marked by a dramatic shift of compassion among the Republican faithful (earlier manifested by the Second Chance Act, aimed at assisting in the successful return of prisoners to the community, and enacted toward the end of President George W. Bush’s watch). This may have possibly happened because as Tyler suggests, many of their own kin have been mired in the judicial morass.
“I believe the bi-partisan support is hugely significant; no longer can politicians use the fear tactics and lock ‘em up sound bites, because at the end of the day, someone has to pay the bills for those policies.”
Just as she lauds the forward step this bill represents, Tyler acknowledges its limitations:
“To fully address the problems created by the crack/powder sentencing disparity, we need to completely eliminate the disparity and to provide full retroactive relief to the individuals still serving time under the old law. While historically significant and quite progressive, this legislation also falls short of the ideal solution.”
This view is echoed by the ACLU’s Villagra: “The Fair Sentencing Act reduces the disparity from a 100:1 to an 18:1 ratio. That is an extremely important step, but it still leaves a sizable sentencing disparity, one that is contrary to the fundamental principle of our criminal justice system: That all people be treated equally and fairly.”
Although crack and other drugs remain a problem across the country, there are increasingly signs of a shift in attitude across demographic boundaries. The California Legislature is considering a proposal to legalize marijuana (AB 390), which would be sold by licensed vendors and subject to a state tax. Other voices in the growing chorus for legalization include elements of the tea party movement and law enforcement community such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). No less a personage than Sarah Palin—the pin-up girl of American Conservatism—has acknowledged a youthful experimentation with pot, and suggests that resources against prohibition of that substance might be better utilized for other pursuits.
On Sept. 23, the Urban Issues Forum of Greater Los Angeles will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its forum, and given this difficult economic time, it is quite an achievement that the event has made it to, and surpassed, the 10-year milestone.
In November 2008 in New Orleans at one of the first major African American oriented conferences after the Obama election, Ron Daniels, Ph.D., the relatively new executive director of the Institute of the Black World, issued a call for the partnering of all progressive Black think tanks in the U.S.A.
LOS ANGELES - The USC men's tennis team and men's and women's water polo teams and UCLA women's gymnastics and softball teams will be among more than 30 NCAA championship teams from the 2009-2010 academic year honored by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony today.
The Trojan men's water polo and tennis teams also won NCAA championships during the 2008-2009 academic year, but neither received invitations to the White House.
The hyperbole around election time has reached a fever pitch as Republican candidates for the mid-term elections focus on attacking the source of the Democratic Party revival. Aiming at the low poll numbers of President Barack Obama, ideologues are now trying to frame the Obama presidency as change the country can no longer afford.
The United States Supreme Court has refused to take up the appeal of a California attorney who has lost lower-court challenges to Barack Obama’s presidency based on a claim he wasn’t born in the United States.
The case originated with Rancho Santa Margarita-based attorney Orly Taitz and Ramona, Calif.-based lawyer Gary G. Kreep.