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Obama sends message on draconian drug sentencing

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama sent the strongest message on the insane waste of the nation’s draconian sentencing laws when he granted clemency to eight, mostly low-level drug offenders. Obama’s clemencies for their drug crimes follow hard on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s virtual demand that U.S. Attorneys rethink how and who they prosecute for drug crimes. That followed even closer on the heels of Congress’s passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Before that, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that modified the draconian sentence for a convicted cocaine peddler. Their actions wiped out much of the disparity in the blatantly racially tinged sentences slapped on crack cocaine users.

The drug sentencing disparities certainly have become a national embarrassment. But they are still on the books. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and Congress now should go much further and put an end to the embarrassment, by totally scrapping all sentencing disparities.

They have wreaked dire havoc in mostly poor black communities, as well as cast an ugly glare on the failed and flawed war on drugs. Countless studies have shown that blacks make up the overwhelming majority of those sentenced in federal court for crack cocaine use and sale. Contrary to popular myth and drug warrior propaganda, more than half of crack users are white, and presumably a good portion of them are crack dealers as well. But it’s the heart-wrenching tales of the legions of poor young men and women who have received sentences totaling decades behind bars for the possession or sale of a pittance of cocaine or marijuana. In many cases, they are young mothers and fathers who, out of poverty and desperation, resorted to the use and sale of drugs.

What has ignited even more outrage is that often their sentences have stood in stark contrast to the sentences of murderers, rapists and bank robbers who, in many cases, have walked out of prison years before the petty drug offenders. The sentences given to the eight men and women Obama granted clemency to were a horrific example of that. Their minimum sentence was 15 years. Some were serving life sentences. The end result of the bloated, grotesque drug war is that the U.S., with 5 percent of the planet’s population, has nearly 25 percent of its inmates.

The myths about who uses drugs, their danger and the injustice in sentencing have been amply exposed in surveys, such as one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the drug habits of Americans. It found that whites are much more likely die of drug overdoses than any other ethnic group.

Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug usage by blacks and whites. But what made the survey more eye-catching, is that it didn’t solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine and street drugs.

The drug warriors have and will continue to resist any effort to scrap the blatant and deliberate racial disparity in drug sentencing laws. In an odd way, they have to take their hard stand. The public scapegoating of blacks for America’s drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. A frank admission that the laws are biased and unfair, and have not done much to combat the drug plague, would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real soul searching over whether all the billions of dollars that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war — the lives ruined by it, and the families torn apart by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws — have really accomplished anything.

This might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place — and if it is really the government’s business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others?

Obama should be applauded for taking the long overdue and much clamored for big step toward restoring sanity to the drug sentencing laws. Now Congress should do what Obama has called for, and once and for all end the insanity in the drug sentencing laws. It’s a matter of simple justice.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: @earlhutchinson.