Crack vs. Powder Cocaine

May 7, 2012

There is a movement to make the Federal Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 apply retroactively to people already incarcerated for possession of crack cocaine.  Since 1986 people convicted of crack cocaine violations faced much longer incarcerations that people convicted of cocaine or other drug or marijuana charges.  This was justified partially on the belief that crack cocaine (which was allegedly introduced to the U.S. market by the U.S. government) brought with it higher crime rates, and was more detrimental to the public than powder cocaine.  

When the 1986 law passed a person would have to possess one hundred times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine in order to get identical sentences.  With the 2010 changes in the law a person now has to possess eighteen times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to get similar sentences.

Unfortunately, what we have learned through these laws is that African Americans are being incarcerated for a much longer time than other prisoners.  This is because studies and statistics have shown that African Americans tend to use more crack cocaine, whereas Caucasian Americans tend to use powder cocaine.  Of course, there are a number of white Americans locked up in federal prison for crack cocaine violations.  

Although there are many conspiracy theorist who claim that the government spread the popularity and availability of crack cocaine as a way to control the African American population, there is very little support for such a contention.  What is evident, however, is that the punishment crack cocaine possession, manufacturing, and distribution have a disparate effect on the African American population.  Some believe that such disparity is warranted due to the violence associated with crack cocaine.  That argument loses its validity when you consider that marijuana trafficking is responsible for countless lives lost in both Mexico and the United States.  If violence is the triggering event for harsher penalties, then it would seem to follow that the penalties for marijuana would be significantly higher than for crack cocaine.  Of course, I'm not suggesting that marijuana penalties should be stricter - in fact, I believe it should be legalized and taxed.

We as a nation have to come to terms with fundamental fairness.  Our forefathers understood that all citizens should be treated fairly by the government.  Unfortunately, the punishments handed down for crack cocaine are fundamentally unfair.  If the government wants to lock someone up they can find a reason.  With the breadth and depth of laws on the books it is likely that most anyone can be made into a criminal for one reason or another.  But, as Congress prepares to debate revamping the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine again they should bear in mind that just because you have the power to oppress does not mean you should do so.  Sentencing guidelines should be equal for cocaine regardless of what form it is found.