I was just listening to a bit of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, which was broadcasting an interview Salon.com had done with Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House committee that created the laws mandating differential sentencing for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. He now serves as president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. You can read the full interview here.
As you read this excerpt, remember that in addition to the social costs Sterling notes, it also costs something like $45,000/year to house a prisoner in a federal prison. But tea partiers want to start to solve the budget deficit by slashing pensions of teachers, police officers and firefighters, and by slashing support services for the poor.
—(From the interview)——
What were the social effects of these laws?
In 1986 the federal prison population was 36,000. Today it’s 216,000. And in the 25 years since, more than half of federal prisoners are brought in on drug charges. The prison population is disproportionately black and Hispanic. The federal government does about 25,000 cases a year and only one out of four of those defendants is white. Also, it’s widely believed that crack cases are mostly minorities, while the powder cocaine cases are mostly white, but that’s a myth. It’s true that only one in 10 crack cases are white, but the overwhelming majority of powder cocaine defendants are still black or Hispanic.
From that angle it certainly looks like intentionally racist legislation.
There were all of these mythologies about how Congress did this intentionally because powder was only used by whites. The way it was put together wasn’t racist, it just wasn’t thought out.
But the other thing that was skewed was that the Department of Justice was supposed to be focusing on high-level traffickers. You look at global trafficking — this stuff is coming in on boats by the ton, but more than a third of federal cases involve less than an ounce of crack cocaine.
So the federal government is looking at insignificant local cases and handing out long sentences to defendants that are predominantly black or Hispanic. No matter what the intentions were in 1986, if these measures had been carried out by a local D.A. instead of the federal government, that D.A. would be indicted for violating civil rights laws.