05/03/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

Playing Tough While Communities Suffer

In the April 20 Wall Street Journal article, "Obama's Misplaced Sympathies," Jason Riley comments on my role as chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control and enactment of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Yes, the bill did include enhanced criminal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, but Mr. Riley fails to understand the context in which the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed.

In the 1980s the nation faced a severe drug abuse epidemic caused primarily by the abuse of cocaine. This epidemic was worsened by a neglect of drug control issues by the Reagan administration. From 1981 to 1986 budgets steadily reduced funding for drug abuse prevention, treatment and law enforcement while drug use and violence was rising. The hearings, reports and findings of the select committee during this period document the extent of the nation's drug problems and the need for an active role by the Federal Government in assisting the states and communities in responding to the drug threat. The 1986 Act dramatically increased federal funding for drug abuse programming and brought coherence to our national drug control strategy. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was a policy success. Since the late 1980's we have witnessed a steady reduction in the abuse of all forms of cocaine, including crack.

After their enactment myself and many of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus came to the conclusion that the impact of the crack cocaine sentencing scheme went beyond drug traffickers and swept up too many low level offenders and subjected them to harsh criminal penalties. I introduced legislation, the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offense. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and other interested groups also called for steps to correct this inequity in the law. These efforts culminated in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 that reduces the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses.

The issue is not, as Mr. Riley states, of simply returning "thugs" to their communities. The issue is whether we have a criminal justice system that protects our communities. Too many aspects of the current justice system permanently marginalize and disenfranchise ex-offenders. That is what makes too many of our communities dangerous. We need policies in place that habilitate and make productive the offender population. That is how we build strong and safe communities.