Yesterday, the House passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, landmark legislation that “changed a quarter-century old law” mandating hugely disproportionate prison terms for powder cocaine over crack cocaine. Enacted in 1986 as part of “a wave of racially-tinged media hysteria,” the law disproportionately targets minorities and “exacerbates racial disparities in the federal prison system.” The new legislation narrows that disparity between powder and crack cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
The bill, which had already passed the Senate, garnered bipartisan support in the House. In fact, precisely because the bill had “the support of conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Prison Fellowship Ministries and activist Grover Norquist,” it sailed through on a voice vote. However, the lone public dissenter of the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (TX), took to the House floor to rail against Congress for supporting the bill. Despite his party’s assertion to the contrary, Smith insisted that reducing the crack to powder disparity actually hurts minority communities:
SMITH: Despite the devastating impact crack cocaine has had on American communities, this bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine. Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals.
Why would we want to reduce the penalties for crack cocaine trafficking and invite a return to a time when cocaine ravaged our communities, especially minority communities? This bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in destroying Americans’ lives. It sends the message that Congress takes drug crimes less seriously than they did. The bill before us threatens to return America to the days when crack cocaine corroded the minds and bodies of our children, decimated a generation, and destroyed communities.
Despite his delusions to the contrary, the status quo has ravaged minority communities by leading to disproportionate arrests, charges, and sentences.
As Leadership Conference on Civil Rights President Wade Henderson explained, minorities are inordinately affected by current drug policies, “not because minorities commit more drug crimes or use drugs at a higher rate than white Americans.” Rather, “the effect of the war on drugs on minorities results from” a few key factors: the fact that “more minorities are arrested for drug crimes,” “the severity of drug sentences has increased overall in the past 20 years,” and because “minorities who are arrested are treated more harshly than white drug crime arrestees.”