Congress passed a historic ruling Wednesday, voting on a Senate-approved measure to pare down a massively prejudiced 100-to-1 sentencing disparity in crack to powder cocaine punishments in exchange for a slightly less inconsistent 18-to-1. The bill now heads to President Obama for signing.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 won House approval thanks largely to a rare bit of bipartisanship from Congress. But some detractors such as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) attacked the legislation as something that would actually hurt minorities and described it as a growth of apathy toward the culture of drug consumption and distribution, rather than, as it was designed, an effort to address an instance of institutionalized racism in the nation's penal code.
Here's what Rep. Smith had to say:
SMITH: Despite the devastating impact crack cocaine has had on American communities, this bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine. Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals.
Why would we want to reduce the penalties for crack cocaine trafficking and invite a return to a time when cocaine ravaged our communities, especially minority communities? This bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in destroying Americans' lives. It sends the message that Congress takes drug crimes less seriously than they did. The bill before us threatens to return America to the days when crack cocaine corroded the minds and bodies of our children, decimated a generation, and destroyed communities.
Mr. Speaker, I hope sincerely that those who support this legislation are prepared to take responsibility if cocaine trafficking increases, if our neighborhoods and communities once again become riddled with violence, and the lives of Americans are unnecessarily destroyed.
As Tonya Somander of Think Progress points out, however, this analysis of the potential effect of this legislation neglects a well-documented (PDF link) history of racial prejudice in the differing punishments handed down for crack and powder cocaine crimes that has "ravaged minority communities by leading to disproportionate arrests, charges, and sentences."
As James Rucker writes over at The Root:
There is now wide agreement that treating two versions of the same drug differently makes no sense from a law enforcement or public health perspective. But the disparity in sentencing for crack and powder offenses continues to break up families around the country and contribute to the over-incarceration of black people. It's an ineffective policy that does nothing to stem addiction or reduce crime. Granted, there's more violent crime associated with crack, because the armed robberies and gunfights associated with the drug trade mostly happen at its low levels. But the kingpins who actually make big money from powder cocaine--which is cooked into crack by lower-level dealers--remain untouched.
And these are all symptoms that the forthcoming 18-to-1 sentencing disparity is still unlikely to address.
WATCH Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on the House floor: