Racist Drug Laws

America’s drug prohibition laws, in many respects overtly racist in origin, have been a major source of police abuses and of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. One aspect of this involves the sentencing laws for cocaine, long used as a pretext to imprison black men at a disproportionate rate.

In 1995 I wrote about the sentencing disparities involved with crack versus powder cocaine.

A new article from the Economist reveals that the racial disparities of drug sentencing have not gone away. The article notes, “When suspects are charged with drug possession, the quantities in their indictments only loosely reflect what they were carrying when arrested. Prosecutors can boost amounts using testimony about previous activity, or by charging people for drugs held by co-conspirators. Some convictions cite 100 times as much crack as the defendant had in hand. Such leeway makes these figures as much a measure of prosecutorial discretion as of suspects’ crimes.”

The piece reveals clear evidence that some prosecutors are abusing this discretion to the harm of minorities: “In 1986 Congress passed a law requiring anyone possessing 50g or more of crack to serve at least ten years in prison. Legislators raised this cut-off to 280g in 2010, making the minimum sentence for possession of 279g half as long as for 280g. By creating a cliff, the law encouraged offenders to carry less than 280g. It also enabled prosecutors who sought extra-long sentences to secure them, by filing charges just above the limit. Before 2010, convictions for 270-280g or 290-300g were just as common as for 280-290g. After that year, the share of sentences for 280-290g surged, from 0.5% to 4%; the rates for adjacent amounts barely changed. Moreover, the burden of these strategically sized charges fell disproportionately on minorities.”

Of course the racist sentencing disparities are only one aspects of the damage of the drug laws. Broader than the problem of black men going to prison longer than white men for comparable crimes is the problem of people going to prison for non-rights-violating behavior. And of course the black market created by the government substantially funds America’s violent gangs. And it has spurred the militarization of U.S. police departments.

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