Does former President Bill Clinton want to become a drug policy reform advocate? On its face, it would seem that way following President Clinton's keynote speech at the University of Pennsylvania last week commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report that addressed the causes of racial disturbances in the 1960s. Clinton admitted his administration's failure to end the racial disparities in sentencing of powder and crack cocaine offenses. He said he regretted not doing more about it, and that he would be prepared to spend a significant portion of his life trying to make amends.
President Clinton's comments came on the heels of historic changes recently enacted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that gives judges the ability to retroactively reduce the sentences of 20,000 crack cocaine offenders. The law went into effect on March 4, 2008 when 1,600 offenders became immediately eligible for release and thousands of others would be eligible in years to follow. Criminal penalties for possession and sales of cocaine are severe. But the penalties for crack cocaine are more severe, despite the fact that pharmacologically they are identical. Under federal law, 500 grams of powdered cocaine is equivalent to five grams of crack cocaine. Despite the majority of users being whites or Hispanic, the majority of those incarcerated for crack cocaine crimes are black. The 100-to-1 sentencing disparity has been condemned by a wide array of criminal justice and civil rights groups for its racially discriminatory impact.
Some critics would be quick to say Clinton's statement is nothing more than a political ploy to generate support for his wife's presidential run and his new-found concern is too little too late. I would give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and welcome him to tackle the tough drug policy issues that exist. This includes battling the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, which incarcerate a majority of blacks excessively long sentences. Out of the 12,000 or so drug prisoners in the state of New York, 91 percent are black and Latino. It makes sense for him to take interest in this issue since the Clintons live in Chappaqua, New York, not far from two maximum security prisons, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and Sing Sing. Additionally, Clinton has his office headquartered in Harlem, a community heavily affected by these drug laws.
Clinton should read the recently released report by Pew's Public Safety Performance Project on incarceration rates. It found that one in 15 black adults is incarcerated and also one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is finding his way into our gulags. Clinton can be a valuable asset to the drug policy reform movement and help dismantle unfair drug laws that waste valuable tax dollars and destroy lives. Let's give him a chance to do right by New York's communities of color.
Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.