Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court took up two cases concerned with the nettlesome racial politics of the war on drugs. One of the cases, Kimbrough v. the United States, addressed the disparity in sentencing for dealers and users of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. In that case, District Judge Raymond A. Jackson decided that the sentence for a convicted crack dealer should be four years less than federal sentencing guidelines say is necessary. A higher court vacated the sentence, and federal prosecutors are holding out for the additional years to be appended to the dealer's sentence.
And while the question of racial disparities in cocaine sentences is hot in the courts, it isn't lighting up the presidential campaign trail in any serious way.
Sure, the Democratic candidates for president have all addressed the issue in some way or another. In the June debate at Howard University, we were even treated to a brilliant round of 'what he (or she) saids' by the Democratic hopefuls.
USA Today columnist Dewayne Wickham asked the candidates what they thought about the overrepresentation of people of color in prison populations. The candidates proceeded to declare their support one by one for ending racial profiling, abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, and eliminating the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity. When it got around to the last in line for the question, former Senator John Edwards, what else could he tell moderator Tavis Smiley but, "Everything that's been said is correct, you know."
Senator Barack Obama went on to make the subject an important part of a recent address at Howard University. The freshman Democrat from Illinois even found a way to drag the Clinton administration into the problem.
"Let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using them," he said last week. "Judges think that's wrong. Republicans think that's wrong. Democrats think that's wrong, and yet it's been approved by Republican and Democratic Presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right."
Senator Obama declared, "That will end when I am President," but you have to wonder why it can't end now.
Three bills are currently pending in the Senate seeking to address the racial bias in crack and powder cocaine sentencing. One is from Senator Joe Biden and has two Democratic co-sponsors. The others, introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Session respectively, have support from some Senate Democrats (there are two additional bills in the House). While the bills offer varying solutions, there seems to be an agreement that a problem exists among Republicans and Democrats in national politics.
In June, Senator Obama said 'political courage' was needed to counter accusations, "of being soft on crime when you deal with these issues." But observers of the political debate over drug sentencing say "fear not."
"Particularly with the crack cocaine issue, there has been so much said and done," said Mary Price, the Vice President and General Counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in an interview with the Huffington Post. "We have three bills in Congress in what is essentially an election year, so it doesn't seem like anyone is taking a hands off approach on this."
Price went on to note the that the big question is whether or not anything gets done this year on the problem of people of color facing longer jail sentences than white Americans who are convicted of drug charges.
With Obama talking about the need for political courage to right the wrongs of the drug war, that's a question that he and his fellow Democratic Senators seeking the presidency should answer. There are three bills that they can choose to get behind and push to the legislative finish line should they so choose. They would likely best be served by picking one and working together to see to its passage.
If they do that, the next time a question comes up about drug sentencing in a debate or forum, these candidates won't need to say, "what he (or she) said." Instead they can answer, "This is what we did."