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Supreme Court Decision Could Reduce Racial Disparity in Drug Laws

December 11, 2007

New York – Liberal and conservative organizations agree Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sentencing for drug crimes could be of great importance to African-American communities, and also could mark the start of wider reforms in drug laws.

The court ruled that federal judges may ignore existing federal sentencing guidelines and use their own discretion in cases involving crack cocaine.

Since the 1980s, dealing crack has carried penalties 100 times as severe as those for distributing the powdered form of the drug. The difference was based on the perception at the time that crack was much more harmful to users. That perception later was found to be wrong; the two forms are equally damaging.

Bill Piper with the liberal Drug Policy Alliance in New York says the change should ease disproportional effects on African-Americans.

"The vast majority of people getting arrested for crack cocaine offenses federally are black, and most of these are low-level offenders."

Drug experts say crack cocaine generally has been used mostly in the African-American community, while Caucasian users have favored the powdered form.

John McWhorter with the conservative Manhattan Institute agrees that the decision can reverse mistakes made a quarter-century ago.

"The idea among people of both colors at the time was that these laws would help break the stranglehold of crack over inner city communities. It didn't work the way we expected. Far too many people ended up going to jail."

Though the ruling affects only federal court sentencing guidelines, it is of particular interest in New York, which has the country’s most severe sentencing laws for drug crimes. Piper says the Supreme Court action will definitely boost efforts to change those laws.

"It's part of a growing momentum in favor of reducing racial disparities being caused by the 'war on drugs.'"

Piper notes that Monday's Supreme Court decision is not the only major change in drug enforcement on the horizon. Later today, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Commission also is expected to issue revised recommendations.

Robert Knight/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - NY