President Obama Signs “The Fair Sentencing Act”
President Obama signs Historic Legislation: The Fair Sentencing Act
Indeed, as detailed in our May 2008 report, Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States, blacks and whites engage in drug offenses—possession and sales—at roughly comparable rates. But because black drug offenders are the principal targets in the “war on drugs,” the burden of drug arrests and incarceration falls disproportionately on black men and women, their families and neighborhoods. The human as well as social, economic and political toll is as incalculable as it is unjust.
–Human Rights Watch, “Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States”
The “War on Drugs,” which more appropriately should be considered a war against the civil and human rights of the Black community, has lost the full potential of one of its mightiest weapons—the disproportionate targeting, prosecution, and imprisonment of Black drug users. President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, passed by both the House and Senate with bi-partisan support, and severely reduces the disparity of prison sentences faced by Black people charged with drug crimes and begins to reverse the crash course our communities has been on for decades. Reduce but not eradicate.
Since the 1980’s mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, used primarily to penalize Black users, have openly discriminated against African Americans. From 1999 through 2007, 80% percent or more of all drug arrests were for possession rather than sales (Human Rights Watch). Ignoring FBI data, which clearly illustrated users and not dealers were being netted, Administration after Administration continued to pursue their failed War on Drugs. It needs to be mentioned that the biggest boost of “war on drugs” funding was appropriated during the Clinton Era.
A key piece of the failed and discriminatory War on Drugs is the discrepancy known as the 100-1 ratio which sentenced a person in possession of just five grams of rock cocaine [the form of cocaine most prevalent in Black communities] to five years in prison on the first offense. However, a person needed to be in possession of no less than 500 grams of powder cocaine [the form not readily available in Black communities] to receive the same sentence.
The Fair Sentencing Act lessens the ratio, or racist application, by 82% thus changing the 100-1 disparity to an 18-1 ratio.
African Americans across the nation know all too well the impacts of the proliferation of crack cocaine on their families, communities, and overall health. However, just as devastating as the drug itself has been the mass incarceration of wholesale numbers of Black men, and more recently Black women, and the irreparable damage it has caused them.
As Pete White with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a member organization of the National 2025 Campaign puts it, “ Mass incarceration has not only removed us from our communities, but it has also stripped us of all potential leaving us stranded in a desert of inequity.”
Make no mistake: what’s left of the War on Drugs is still very powerful and damaging to Black communities.
But today, President Obama has reduced the discriminatory sentencing power that has been used to destroy of our communities. This is a significant victory, yet there remains much work to be done to achieve equity.